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Wow! Look at coleus now

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

By Cathy Wilkinson BarashSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003


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.

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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.

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.