In the spring, we often select flowering annuals for planting in our flower beds and containers, and sometimes we overlook annual foliage plants like Coleus. Coleus plants are easy-care, versatile, and their foliage color can only be described as spectacular! Coleus combines well with flowering annuals to create more texture and interest, or it’s a great stand-alone in a container or bed.
The botanical name for cultivated Coleus is most often Solenostemon scutellarioides. Sometimes it will be listed as Coleus x hybridus and another synonymous name is Coleus blumei. There is also quite a list of common names: Coleus, Flame Nettle, Painted Nettle, Painted Leaf, and Poor Man’s Croton. The name Coleus comes from the Greek “koleos” and it means sheath. The name was probably given due to the fact that the stamens, the male portions of the Coleus flowers, are fused into a tube or sheath.
The Coleus is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae. Coleus plants have the distinctive stems that are square in cross section and are closely related to peppermint, spearmint, salvia, basil, thyme and oregano. Coleus plants are herbaceous perennials in their native habitat, and that could originally have been Africa to Asia and the Pacific Islands. They are frost tender, so in most climates, they are grown as annuals. Coleus plants have opposite leaves and blue to lilac colored flower spikes (most gardeners pinch out the spikes because they are insignificant compared to the beautiful foliage).
So, what’s so great about Coleus? Well, it has the most incredible foliage with colors and color combinations that no other plant species can offer. The colors are brilliant and the range in shades is limitless: dark mahogany, browns, greens, yellows, bronze, reds, and oranges. The leaves are gorgeous with their frilly edges and unique color patterns. The Coleus plants have different growth habits: some are tall and lanky, some branch freely and are compact, and others trail and are beautiful in hanging baskets. There are literally 1000s of forms!
Propagation of Coleus plants is fairly simple. Cuttings that are 3 – 4 inches long will readily root even in a glass of water. Coleus seeds are usually found in mixtures, offering several varieties of colors and sizes in one seed mix. Start Coleus seeds indoors 8 weeks or so before the last expected frost. Using starter trays or pots and pre-moistened sterile potting mix, the seeds should be placed on the surface and gently pressed into the soil. Covering the pots with glass or clear plastic helps to keep the moisture in the seeds. Keep a room temperature of 70°, mist the surface and seeds daily with water, and place the tray or pots in a sunny location, preferably with indirect light as to not dry out the seeds. Remove the covering once germination has started and set the tray in a sunny window. Watering from the bottom is recommended. The Coleus seedlings can be handled once they have developed 2 sets of true leaves. Harden the seedlings off before planting them outdoors. Coleus plants prefer fertile, evenly moist, well-draining soil, and they do well with a partial shade setting.
When growing Coleus from seeds, it is amazing to watch the genetic expression even in the seedlings. There seems to be an endless variety of color combinations, and the colors are so rich and vibrant. Include some Coleus plants on the yearly list of annuals – they are guaranteed to thrill!
Question for the week: Do you grow Coleus from seeds or cuttings?
By Kimberly Bell