Wow! Look at coleus now

Considered the plant equivalent of comfort food, this colorful annual has gotten a makeover.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

I have loved coleus since I was a child - back when my grandmother had several coleus plants with leaves that were cream, pale pink, and light green.

Most of the time she kept them indoors, but she did take some cuttings and planted them outdoors in a shady area near the azaleas I gave her every year at Mother's Day. Since neither the coleus or the azalea was hardy, they always died at first frost.

Occasionally my grandmother would find a coleus leaf that was a little different from the others. She would be sure to make a cutting of that stem and root it.

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She showed me how easy it was: Cut a stem about four to six inches long. Remove the lower leaves, so that only two or three sets of leaves remain. Put the stem in a glass of room-temperature water. Be sure the leaves are well above the water level.

She always put the glasses of coleus cuttings (sometimes several per glass) on the north-facing window sill next to her African violets, which seemed to bloom year-round.

By my next visit (usually every couple of weeks), the cuttings had "magically" sent out roots. Then it was time to plant them in soil. She told me her secret to such lush-looking pots of coleus - she put three or more cuttings in the pot, depending on the size of the container.

Grandma also taught me that other plants root faster in water that coleus have rooted in.

It was a while before she let me take cuttings of her plants and root them myself. First I did it only at her house, and the plants had to stay there.

At last, I sneaked some cuttings home with me and started growing and propagating them myself. This was the beginning of my lifelong love of coleus.

A coleus celebration

Fast-forward about 40 years. I received an invitation to the "coleus celebration" that David Weirdsma of Greenwich, Conn., was holding at French Farm, his family homestead. On the five-acre farm, he had more than 125 named varieties growing.

They were unlike anything I'd seen. At the arboretum where I worked, they grew coleus - even trained them as topiary standards - but they were very similar to my grandmother's.

As I drove into French Farm, my eyes were opened to the enormous range of color, form, texture, and size of coleus. I fell in love with one named Furnace, which had deep red, slightly scalloped leaves.

I liked Wine and Lime, whose chartreuse leaves appeared splotched with merlot. One named Ducksfoot had the coloration of my grandmother's plants but with three-quarter-inch leaves shaped like the imprint of a duck's foot.

Then there was Black Marble, with oh-so-deep-burgundy leaves highlighted by a wavy green edge and a dash of green here and there. I was also impressed by Gay's Delight, which featured simple chartreuse leaves with the veins highlighted in deep purple. Wow!

On and on, each plant I saw was more intriguing than the next.

This indeed was a celebration, not only of the diversity of coleus, but also of the myriad uses of the plants throughout the landscape.

Mr. Weirdsma had selected different varieties of coleus to highlight special perennials or shrubs. The chartreuse leaves and purplish markings of Pineapple Queen coleus were paired with Gold Sword yucca - a perfect echo of colors. Spectrum coleus - with green, red, and bronze leaves that have serrated edges - grew side by side with Carol Mackie daphne, which has pink blooms, white flowers, and green leaves edged in cream.

Coleus were everywhere - from a path through his woods to a shrub bed highlighted with a pinwheel design of coleus, to unusual planters.

What shocked me most of all was that so many of them were thriving in full sun. Wasn't coleus a shade plant?

Coming out of the shade

The Sun Series changed the face of coleus forever. No longer a meek, pale-leafed plant in hues of green, cream, and pink relegated to the shade, today's coleus are bold plants in a myriad of bright colors, leaf sizes, and shapes.

The increasing popularity of sun-loving coleus has fitted nicely with the current trend of growing tropical plants - everything from cannas with gold-striped leaves to mandevilla and bougainvillea vines to banana trees - in temperate climates.

On my first visit to French Farm, I purchased hundreds of cuttings and by summer's end, my sunny parking area at home was filled with 12- to 18-inch pots, each with a different variety of coleus. We had grown them for a coleus-themed garden at a fall flower show; my driveway was the growing and staging area. Before long the area had been transformed from boring bluestone into what appeared to be a colorful crazy quilt of coleus.

A kaleidoscope of coleus

I spent time each day moving the various pots around to achieve different looks. It became my ever-changing garden without soil - just the pots sitting on the driveway.

When it came time to move the pots to the show, the area was barren and boring. I knew that from then on, containers of coleus - although perhaps not in such great numbers - would be part of my landscape.

Anticipating bringing the plants home after the show, I had not counted on coleus's most deadly enemy - frost. Overnight, the kaleidoscopic leaves changed into drooping brown blobs. Not a pretty sight.

Fortunately, Weirdsma had cuttings, so I was able to get some to plant on my sun porch. Although the colors became less intense as the sunlight decreased, the coleus continued to brighten the autumn and winter.

When I moved to Iowa, I traveled up to Minnesota to Color Farms (www.colorfarm.com), a small grower that specializes in coleus. After seeing the plants, I tried very hard not to go overboard and ordered "only" a few dozen varieties.

A month later, they arrived as I was about to leave on a trip. Inspired by my driveway on Long Island, I used the coleus to create a quick quilt of many colors to border my front walk.

What happened next proved that there is no doubt a planting of coleus that is both eye-catching and traffic-stopping. People dropped by - knocking on the door and leaving notes. They asked questions, and when they were truly interested in coleus, were rewarded with cuttings to grow themselves.

I was surprised to find that many adults consider coleus the plant equivalent of comfort food. For lots of people, it was one of the first plants they had propagated and grown successfully, often as a family project.

Like me, they had often grown coleus as kids. Perhaps that is why myriad varieties are now available at garden centers and nurseries - we are all reliving one of the great joys of childhood.

Of course, it probably helps that this Victorian favorite has kept the best of its past as it grows even better in the 21st century.

From seed or not from seed

Coleus is easily grown from seed. However, the resulting plants are likely to be quite variable. Coleus raised from seed will resemble each other but will not be all the same, as they would be if grown from cuttings.

Gardeners may take cuttings as my grandmother did (see story), or use a slightly more high-tech method. Dip cuttings as small as two inches long (with at least one set of leaves) into rooting hormone and then insert them into moistened sand or a potting mixture.

Keep them warm and moist (a plastic bag over the pot works well) until the roots form, which may take several weeks. You can tell when they have roots, as the cuttings will not wiggle when you try to move them. At that point, plant them in containers, or if it is warm enough (the same time as you would plant tomatoes) plant them outdoors.

How to grow coleus

When growing coleus in containers, plant in rich, well-drained potting soil enriched with peat moss. Keep the soil lightly moist, and - if growing them indoors - make sure the air is humid and circulating.

Outdoors, plant coleus in any good, well-drained soil. Before planting, determine whether the variety is a sun- or shade-lover and place it accordingly.

The biggest challenges with indoor coleus are mealybugs, which look like bits of cotton fuzz, often seen in the leaf axils or under the leaves. This can be a persistent pest. Immediately isolate any infested plant. Dip cotton swabs in rubbing alcohol and rub on any area where you see the mealybugs. I have found best success in using a single swab for a single group of mealybugs; otherwise there is the danger of spreading the mealybugs to other areas.

Often it is simpler to discard any plant infested with mealybugs and then keep a watchful eye on its former neighbors.

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