Coleus: garden's rainbow

Plants: Leaves of this tender tropical perennial enliven yards with bright splashes of color.

May 20, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

In kindergarten, everyone in our class was given a coleus to take home. The leaves were velvety splats of moss green, cream and deep rose that looked like little botanical Rorshak tests. It turned out to be my initiation into gardening. Together, my mother and I planted it in the shade of the lilac where I inspected it every time I spit watermelon seeds over the porch rail.

But while I applauded the plant's enthusiastic growth, I didn't like its looks. Moss green and rose weren't my colors. But back then, in Baltimore's horticultural Dark Ages, there was little choice.

Today, it's a different story: there is a smorgasbord of hues and color combinations available.

Coleus has been around forever as a tropical perennial, but it was the Victorians, those rapacious collectors of nearly everything, who really got them off the ground (so to speak) as annuals in more northern gardens, which for tender coleus includes Maryland. In those days, coleus was propagated by cuttings and over-wintered in greenhouses, an expensive proposition. After the world wars, the use of greenhouses declined, and so did coleus collecting. But southern enthusiasts in America continued to maintain them as tender perennials.

"About five years ago, there started to be a renaissance," says Dave Bowman, coleus propagator and an owner of Crownsville Nursery, a mail-order business in Annapolis. "People started rediscovering the colors in southerners' yards."

This revived interest in coleus, coupled with an appetite for new and different varieties, has encouraged both plant explorers and hybridizers to continually bring new colors to the table.

"They are finding new material in Indonesia," says Bowman, "and they are cross-breeding. And coleus are also variable plants in themselves -- they just throw out 'sports' [slightly mutated shoots] easily."

"Now there are purples with lime greens and chartreuse and burgundies all in one plant," agrees Laura Darley who specializes in annuals at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville.

While some gardeners may be intimidated by the flashy colors, wondering how to blend chartreuse with electric pink, Bowman views them as a plus.

"These days, it's hard to make bad color combinations," he insists. "They all look good together simply because of the vivid colors."

Traditionally, coleus was one of the plants for color in the shade.

There are still varieties that need partial or full shade -- like the delicate-leafed inky fingers, a rich purple-black with a deckled edging of electric green, and Solar Shade, a bright lemony-green -- but now there are others that crave light, like 'Alabama Sunset,' aka 'Texas Parking Lot.' As its name suggests, it not only loves sun, but tolerates drought, producing an amazing profusion of bright, pinky-red leaves with a shock of yellow in their centers.

Coleus was once considered a bedding plant, and there are still some great bedding types, like the low-growing little 'Duck's Foot' varieties. But now, many of the newer coleus, which are often larger than the older types, make beautifully strong statements in pots or window boxes. Additionally, unlike bulbs and perennials, which have a blooming period then revert to foliage alone, coleus provides non-stop color from late spring to first frost.

"Coleus is not just your typical green foliage plant," observes Darley. "You can have a window box filled with only coleus, and even though it's not flowering, it's still very attractive all summer long."

While not prized for their bloom, most coleus, if left alone, will flower, though the small spike they produce (called a "spore flower") is insignificant when compared to the flamboyant leaves.

"The spore flower is usually a little purple and / or white spike," says Darley. "If you want more leaves and to keep the plants fuller at the bottom, pinch the flower off. If you want it to flower and be more rangy, let it go; it's just a different look."

Coleus is very easy to grow. Just follow directions for exposure and watering for the specific variety. (If the pot comes with no instructions, be sure to ask the garden center people whether it's a sun or shade-loving type.).

"The shade varieties like more moisture," says Darley. "The sun varieties can dry out some, but you still need to water them."

To produce your next year's crop of coleus, you can take cuttings, which simply means snipping off a healthy-looking top that includes several sets of leaves. Plop the stem in water in a clear glass container or a pot of planting medium up to the first set of leaves, then over-winter them on the window sill.

The only thing that hasn't changed about coleus is its tenderness: all varieties are extremely sensitive to cold and collapse in a blackened heap at the first frost.

SOURCES

Crownsville Nursery

P.O. Box 797

Crownsville, MD 21032

www.crownsvillenursery.com

Mail-order only

Bridgewood Gardens

1103 Honeysuckle Lane

Annapolis, MD 21401

410-849-5640

Park Seed Co.

1 Parkton Ave.

Greenwood, SC 29649

800-213-0076

www.parkseed.com

W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

300 Park Ave.

Warminster, PA 18974

800-888-1447

www.burpee.com

Glasshouse Works

Church St.

P.O. Box 97

Stewart, OH 45778-0097

740-662-2142

Orders: 800-837-2142

www.rareplants.com / pageone.html

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