Colourful coleus

Sunday, 05 February 2017

Coleus planted in an old dinghy, The Boathouse, Palm Beach, Sydney

In my current preoccupation with the heat and dryness of this incredible summer, I have been taking note of what people tell me about what is surviving the onslaught in Sydney gardens. Amongst the stalwarts, coleus plants are often being mentioned: they seem to thrive in this current weather! Last week, when I happened to be catching a quick bite to eat at a seaside cafe on Sydney's northern beaches, I saw a gardener planting out the huge containers (including some old dinghies!) that decorate this place, with some really stunning-looking coleus cultivars. I just felt I had to devote a blog to these amazing plants, which really seem to be able to take all that is thrown at them at this time of year.

Coleus planted in pot, The Boathouse home shop, Palm Beach, Sydney

Hailing from South-east Asia, coleus were known botanically as Solenostemon scutellarioides but recently reclassified as Plectranthus scutellarioides - but neither of these names seem to have really caught on amongst us hands-on gardeners, as far as I can tell! I remember them being grown in my parents' garden in the 1970s and '80s, and they have become fashionable again in recent years. They offer some of the best foliage that Sydney gardeners could possibly hope for, with their huge array of colours and forms. They are so very useful for bringing colour to shaded spots, though many grow well in sunny places too, extending their usefulness. Their multicoloured leaves have endless potential for creating 'colour echoes' with nearby flowers or foliage of the same hues. They work very well with 'semi-tropical'-style plants such as Colocasia, Odontonema, Cuphea, Dahlia and bromeliads.

Coleus at The Boathouse, Palm Beach, Sydney

The leaves may have contrasting coloured edges, freckles, bands or other markings; leaf shapes vary from long and pointed to rounded or finger-like, or even what is termed 'duck-foot' by coleus fanciers. Almost every imaginable colour can be found in some coleus or other! I particularly like those that have dark markings on the leaves. I don't know the names of any of my coleus plants, but there are apparently many named cultivars. Heights can vary but they are usually around 60 cm tall. Some forms have a trailing habit. The best way to acquire good doers is as cuttings from other gardeners.

Coleus grow very easily from cuttings and will even sprout roots in a glass of water, being an ideal subject for beginning propagators! Recently, I was given a gorgeous posy made entirely of different coloured coleus; all took root in the vase and I now am growing them on in pots! I usually take cuttings of my favourite ones each autumn, as a precaution against losing them in a very cold winter: though some do survive winter in my garden, many succumb to the cold and those that do survive take a while to recover. I don't cut these back whilst the weather is still cold, as that can kill them - I wait till early September before cutting them back and fertilising them with a general purpose food. Coleus can be grown from seed, and some gardeners report them coming up by themselves by self-seeding in the garden, although I have never had this happen.

Beautiful display of coleus in the garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Coleus grow best in a well-drained soil with adequate moisture and regular liquid feeding, though they will still survive given less-than-optimal conditions. In the warmer months, pinch out the growing tips regularly to encourage a well-branched plant, and remove any flower stems that develop, as these make the plant look lanky. They can be subject to the annoying flea beetle, which disfigure the leaves: my preferred method of dealing with these menaces is to flick them into a jar of soapy water: painstaking but effective! Coleus can be grown in containers or hanging baskets. It is even possible to train a standardised coleus! For lots of information and ideas on coleus, I can recommend the book Coleus: Rainbow foliage for containers and gardens by Ray Rogers.

Reader Comments

  • By Anne 2518 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 06 February 2017

    Always loved them & remember during the 70"s they were very popular & used to exchange cuttings with fellow workers at UNSW. you could also buy some seed of really fascinating cut leaf ones. The ones available to buy these days are general the same half dozen if that. Bob Cherry used to have some great ones in his nursery at Paradise Plants (before he sold it) including some of the ones I had grown all those years ago. The ones you saw on the Nthn Beaches sound lovely & looked good in yr pic. It is hard to buy good ones these days; most of mine are from cuttings from other gardeners. Deirdre

  • By Bren 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 06 February 2017

    Yes, i love coleus too, but some of the ones I bought from a popular hardware chain were just too gaudy, and i didnt mind that they died off during winter. Actually, I find the less garish ones (perhaps they are less hybridised)last the best over winter. It is an interesting point - definitely the older-style ones seem more frost-hardy. The fancier hybrids do not seem as robust. Deirdre

  • By Betty 3104 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 06 February 2017

    When living in Townsville, North Queensland, in the 60"s, a friend had them growing everywhere in his yard. They were a wonderful, colourful sight. Ray now lives in Launceston but I don"t think he can grow them like he used to. They are great for "filling in" dull corners. Yes they are fab for those shaded spots! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 06 February 2017

    Am really fond of coleus, in their myriad of colours and styles. I am pleasantly surprised at the way in which they can stand Sydney"s awful heat and humidity. The plants can be nestled just about anywhere. I have many planted with my cane and rhizomatous begonias, and they seem to enjoy each other"s company very much! Begonias and coleus are both so tough and both like shade! Thank goodness for plants like that in this horrid summer. Deirdre

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