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"Perilla Magilla" vs. Perilla vs. Coleus
Posted on Oct 9, 2014 1:26 PM

Coleus versus "Perilla Magilla"!

We're changing the world, one plant at a time!

This plant tag is soon to be history:


Fellow ATP member and contributor @greene started the ball rolling on June 11, 2014 when she started the thread "Perilla or Coleus?" in ATP's Plant Database forum.

A friend of Greene's had given her some plants he referred to as Sesame. Greene was familiar with Sesame plants and knew these were something else. After doing a bit of research she determined the plant was actually a green-leaf form of Perilla frutescens used in Korea sometimes called Korean Shiso, two of the Korean names for which translate to "wild sesame" and to "sesame leaf".

This simple name mix-up caused her to wonder what other names might confuse gardeners. Her curiosity led her to the article "Magilla Gorilla and shady cultivars" (published January 2014* by Dr. Arthur O. Tucker, a botanist from Delaware University). Since his audience for this article is the general public rather than a group of scientists, some of Dr. Tucker's comments are a bit tongue-in-cheek. But he is very clear when he makes the declaration that Perilla 'Magilla' is NOT a Perilla [Perilla sp.], but rather a Coleus [Plectranthus scutellarioides]. Dr. Tucker's statements were contrary to all the previously published and widely accepted information, so Greene started the ATP thread simply wanting to know if this new information was correct.

000000* note: Dr. Tucker had previously published the information in the Fall 2010 newsletter of The Herb Society of America.

Dr. Tucker is a noted and well-published botanist. To quote Delaware State University: "Dr. Tucker is an internationally renowned botanist and is the co-founder and director of DSU’s Claude E. Phillips Herbarium... Dr. Tucker has been a prolific botany writer, having co-authored five books,... contributed chapters to 29 books and co-authored more than 90 refereed journal articles..."

We might have taken his information more seriously, but questioned his credibility because in his article he used the name Solenostemon scutellarioides for Coleus, instead of the recently and currently accepted Plectranthus scutellarioides. Greene asked Dr. Tucker about this usage, and he replied with links to two major databases showing Plectranthus scutellarioides as the currently accepted name for Coleus, but added:

"Solenostemon scutellarioides was popular for a few decades after Codd, a well-respected South African botanist, published it in 1975, and some botanists and botanic gardens still use it." [More on this later.]

And to his point, from what I have seen in my research, the vast majority of references outside of the professional taxonomic databases still use Solenostemon as the genus name for Coleus. Of course, I realize that frequent and widespread usage of a name does not make it the "correct" name (but again, more on this later).

The real issue, and of FAR more importance than the name he used, was the taxonomic knowledge gained from examining flowers of "Perilla Magilla".

One of the defining characteristics of Perilla and of Coleus/Solenostemon/Plectranthus is the arrangement of the stamen filaments. In Coleus, Solenostemon and Plectranthus, the filaments are fused at the base, forming a cone (connate). However, in Perilla, the filaments are free (also referred to as "distinct").

To illustrate the difference... In the following photo (of an unrelated Inga sp.), the filaments are fused in the lower part (the staminal tube), and free (distinct) in the upper part:


The botanical details of the flowers of "Perilla Magilla" were previously unknown because the plant almost never blooms. But a vouchered blooming specimen of "Perilla Magilla" was obtained from Longwood Gardens by the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium at Delaware State University, and examined. The stamens were not free as in Perilla; they were connate as in our garden Coleus. Additionally, Coleus, Solenostemon, and Plectranthus species are all perennials, while all the various forms of Perilla are emphatic annuals. Clearly "Perilla Magilla" is more like a Coleus than a Perilla.

Coleus, Solenostemon, Plectranthus and Perilla are all in the Mint family, Lamiaceae, along with the familiar genus Salvia. Like Mint and culinary Sage, Perilla is an edible herb. Perilla is domesticated in a variety of forms, and is widely used in cooking throughout Asia, with different countries using different forms and using them in different ways. Apparently it can be quite tasty. On the other hand, some forms of our garden coleus are reportedly more like Salvia divinorum or Psilocybin mushrooms (and reportedly toxic to pets). So... unless Grandma doesn't mind the occasional hallucination... she probably shouldn't be putting coleus into her salad!

Unfortunately there are numerous references on the internet where people are boldly advising others that "of course . Perilla Magilla is edible; it's just another variety of Perilla."

Ball Horticultural is the company that introduced "Perilla Magilla" commercially to the public. They had obtained it from a Japanese company which, when providing it, had called it simply "Perilla". So with no reason to believe otherwise, Ball labeled it as Perilla frutescens and gave it the catchy cultivar name "Perilla Magilla". [link]

Greene contacted Ball Horticultural expressing her concerns. She received, in part, the following information from Ryan Hall, Global Product Manager of Ball Horticultural:

June 20, 2014
"I wanted to follow up with you on your request about Perilla Magilla... I have seen Perilla frutescens and it does look quite different, so there is a good chance that it may be a true Coleus (Solenostemon)... We are going to look at the Magilla variety at a molecular level to see if we can finally identify the true parentage. Give me a few weeks and we may have a real answer!"

And then:

Aug 27, 2014
"We did complete the testing and essentially confirmed Perilla Magilla is closer genetically to Coleus than Perilla. Now we need to go through the process of updating our systems so this is reflected on tags, literature etc... You can tell your on-line friends. We will not plan to publish anything regarding our findings and simply make the switch in our internal systems. This will eventually be reflected on plant tags and in our literature. At this point I don’t know what we will call the plant..."

So now we know! This is clear affirmation and validation of Dr. Tucker's assertion that "Magilla Perilla" is Coleus, not Perilla! And happily, Ball Horticultural is taking responsible action and renaming the plant and rewriting their tags and literature.

But wait! There's MORE!!!

Remember? I did tell you... "More on this later"...!

Coleus0 versus... well... Everybody!

Dr. Lena Struwe, Associate Professor and Director of Chrysler Herbarium, Rutgers University, runs "Botanical Accuracy", the blog where we first read Dr. Tucker's article "Magilla Gorilla and shady cultivars". Dr. Struwe now has this article on her blog, where we learn:

"In the blogpost about "Magilla Perilla" we listed the scientific name for coleus as Solenostemon scutellarioides. We also listed two older synonyms as Plectranthus scutellarioides and Coleus blumei. A few weeks ago we e-mailed botanist Alan Paton, who works on the evolution of this plant group at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, and asked him, "What is the correct species name for coleus, for real, and where does it belong?"

His answer was maybe not what you expect. He said:

"I'm writing up the research at the moment. [...] Plectranthus including some other genera on one hand and Coleus and some other relations including Solenostemon form sister clades. The actual picture with denser sampling shows a slightly more complex picture than these earlier papers; but they give an outline which suggests Coleus should be recognized and Solenostemon would be embedded within it."

What does this mean? Be prepared to see the scientific name of your garden coleus change back to the original genus Coleus in the near future, and Solenostemon will be no more (it will be merged into Coleus). Plectranthus will still be around but with fewer species and not include your garden coleus. So, coleus will be a Coleus again...

So, looks like the whole Coleus=Plectranthus.versus Coleus=Solenostemon issue will soon be behind us!

Of course, nothing changes yet. Not until botanist Dr. Alan Paton's revision is published.

So, while the botanical world collectively holds it's breath, the other shoe is about to drop!!!

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