It's not the flower but the irresistible foliage of coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) that catches your eye. The shades of gold, lime, soft pink, rich red, velvety burgundy, and deep maroon--along with the contrasting scalloped edges, centers, and veining--all add luster to your favorite container or garden border.
Popular in the Victorian era, coleus was later ignored in the garden and relegated to the windowsill as a houseplant. But coleus has made a comeback, due to cultivars that survive sun, the plant's adaptability to container gardens, and today's design emphasis on texture in the garden. Hundreds of choices are available in a myriad of colors and patterns.
Common name: Coleus, flame nettle, painted nettle
Botanical name: Solenostemon scutellarioides
Plant type: Perennial in tropical areas of Africa and Asia and where temperatures are a minimum of 50°F. Annual in all other areas.
Height: To 36 inches
Spread: To 36 inches
Family: Lamiaceae (Mint)
- Sun: Part shade to shade; sun for some cultivars in Zones 3 to 5.
- Soil: Well-drained
- Moisture: Consistently moist soil
- Mulch: None required
- Pruning: Shear flowers when they appear in late summer so the plant will not go to seed and decline.
- Fertilizer: In summer, use a liquid fertilizer at half strength to help maintain vigor.
- Sow seeds of common coleus at a temperature of 72°F to 75°F in spring. Root cuttings of cultivars from spring to fall.
Pests and diseases:
- Mealybugs, scale insects, and whiteflies may attack coleus grown as houseplants.
- Very resistant to disease and insects in the garden.
- Excessive watering causes root rot.
- Excessively wet soil will stunt coleus and reduce their vibrant colors, as will excessively dry soil. Water well at planting, then daily until established. After that, water when top inch of soil is dry.
- In containers, use with other plants that have similar water needs.
- Pinch shoots of young plants to encourage bushy foliage.
- Coleus varieties were common in Victorian carpet beds (flowerbeds filled with low-growing annuals in elaborate patterns and bright color schemes).
- ‘Freckles' has a polka-dotted green leaf with red spots. Prefers part shade.
- ‘Northern Lights' changes color through the season in shades of lavender, rose, salmon, burgundy, and green. Tolerates sun or shade.
- ‘Pineapple' is lime-gold with maroon stems. Tolerates sun.
- ‘Saturn' has burgundy leaves, a lime-gold center, and lime edge and spots. Tolerates sun.
- ‘Solar Shadow' has green leaves with red edges and tips. Tolerates sun.
- ‘The Line' is tall and has gold leaves and purple veins. Prefers partial shade.
- Wizard Series (pictured here) grows to 10 inches and includes large lime, burgundy, red, and variegated leaves.
All in the family:
- The mint family (Lamiaceae) includes monarda, catmint, salvia, lambs' ears, the herbal mints, and oregano.
(Text by Mary Pestel, photo courtesy of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.)