Talk about beautiful foliage and versatility all in one plant! Coleus can be used in your gardens, containers, patio gardens, flower arrangements or even as a houseplant. They can be trailing plants or bushy mounds. The leaves can be lacy, ruffled, smooth, twisted, solid colors, have contrasting edges, or a kaleidoscope of colors, big, little, round, pointed. In other words, something for everyone!
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) have a tough constitution but are easy to grow. They’re often called Painted Nettle or Flame Nettle but are actually a member of the mint family. In cold areas they’re grown as an annual since they’re not hardy. In warm areas they can be grown as perennials if managed well. They're vigorous growers and leaf size ranges from 1- 8 inches or more, and plants can grow up to 36 inches tall. They have endless variations in color, shape and patterns, and work well as a focal point or a compliment to other plants.
Most coleus plants should be grown in bright, indirect light or in partial shade. The intensity of the light they receive has a direct impact on the intensity of the foliage color. Many will survive in full sun, but the foliage color is increased when grown in partial shade. There are cultivars bred specifically for nearly full shade too. It’s best to wait until the minimum outdoor temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit before planting outside. They need moist, well-draining soil, but not actually wet. They can tolerate rich to poor soil as long as they have good drainage. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the foliage will start to wilt. They’ll benefit from a monthly feeding of all-purpose fertilizer.
They’re also very easy to grow into a standard. One great thing about using coleus is that it only takes 6-12 months to have a good looking standard compared to years for plants like rosemary or bay to become a decent size standard. This one is only about 4 months along.
Coleus make great house plants if you can offer them several hours of bright light a day, or provide florescent “grow lights” which seems to bring out even more intense coloring. They’ve been used as houseplants for many years. In fact, you may remember them from your grandmother’s parlor. They’ll do OK in temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit but do best when kept between 70 and 80 degrees F., and they like humidity. Feed monthly with a diluted house plant fertilizer.
When the plants are about 6 inches tall, begin pinching back the tips which promote lateral side growth and make a bushier plant. In mid-season, if they start to get leggy don’t hesitate to cut them back by half. They’re so resilient that you can almost cut them back to ground level and they’ll come back.
Keep the flower buds pinched off to prolong the life of the plant. The flowers grow on a stem above the foliage and are usually purple, very small and insignificant. Once a coleus goes to seed its life cycle is over and it will usually die.
Coleus are frequently used as “lab rat” plants. They’ve been tested for salt tolerance, water uptake, plant nutrition, leaf drop, light reflection, and leaf morphology among numerous other tests. It’s even being tested to see if coleus cell cultures may be useful in production of a compound called rosmarinic acid which has anti-viral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. The roots of coleus plants have been used in India for many years as an herbal medication to treat heart and lung diseases. The chemical Forskolin is thought to be responsible for these medical qualities.
Coleus are very easy to grow from seed and it’s fun to see the different colors of plants that will grow from one packet of seeds. If you plan to start them indoors, sow them 8 - 10 weeks before you want to plant outside. Germination takes 10 - 12 days if kept at 72 degrees F.
They are also simple to propagate from cuttings. See this great article by Onewish1 for instructions on how to grow coleus from cuttings. I have to warn you though, it's easy to get carried away!
Don’t miss out on the excitement of growing these versatile plants. Where else can you get such a selection of sizes, colors, leaf shape, height differences and endless color choices all from one type of plant?
Some photos courtesy of kqcrna
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