Nothing lights up the shade garden more than coleus. For years this plant was the standard for infusing splashes of color into areas that were the bastion of hostas, ferns and all green things that succeeded in a low-light environment. The coleus of yesteryear have come a long way, and the hybridizers have given us plants that can tolerate more sunshine, greater heat, and, most importantly, they have more color, pattern and form.
Coleus is a tender perennial native to Africa, Southeast Asia, India and Australia, where they thrive in a tropical climate. Here we must treat them as annuals because they cannot survive when the temperature falls below 60 degrees. They were adored by the Victorians and finally made their way across the pond and into the American gardens in the 1890s.
These early coleus were more garish and flower-producing, which came to be viewed as a distraction from the true value of the plant. They had an important role in the shade garden, but deadheading the elongated flowers and the constant pinching required to encourage more compact growth became burdensome. The species was on the brink of losing its appeal. Enter the hybridizers, who have produced plants that flower much later, along with patterns, shapes and hues that are elegant and irresistible.
In the past, all coleus were seed-grown, and these cultivars would melt down in intense heat faster than a cranky child. If there were drought conditions, these plants would wilt and topple. No amount of water could resuscitate them. The new sun coleus, grown from cuttings, have been propagated to withstand these conditions.
Coleus are actually members of the mint family, but unlike these garden thugs who want to take over their habitat, coleus are refined, elegant and stay in place. They are happiest in partial shade, which would include sunny mornings and afternoons spent in dappled light. No coleus will succeed in total shade. They enjoy water but rebel against soggy conditions, much like my marginal water plants that thrive with wet feet but will not tolerate wet ankles.
Gone are the days when all coleus came in flats with predictable colors, sizes and shapes. Now the selection is endless. There are trailing coleus, suitable for spilling over the sides of containers and winding through landscape beds. Mounding coleus make a wonderfully rounded statement in hanging baskets, window boxes, containers and beds. The taller, more upright coleus can be a focal point in any placement. The remarkable thing about this species is that it is so agreeable. It is happy to be a companion to other bedding plants, or it can very well stand on its own as a focal point. Either way, it brings perfection to its placement.
Often coleus that receive an overabundance of sunshine rebel by changing color or scorching, much like the pigmentation of our skin with a sunburn or tan. This is not a finicky plant when it gets the right light, water, temperature and humidity. It will reward you with a wonderful display as only today's coleus can.
Three of my favorite coleus are 'Inky Fingers,' 'Fishnet Stockings' and 'Alligator Tears.' They are wonderful, whimsical plants that form a perfect mound with the slight encouragement of pinching as they mature. Just the names alone are enough to make you smile. Those responsible for these designations had true imagination and creativity. 'Inky Fingers' looks like a child's hand that despite repeated warnings, could not avoid mischief and got into the ink jar. The bright green edging surrounds a deep purple splotch. Even more precious is the smaller version called 'Inky Toes' -- perfect in front of the border.
'Fishnet Stockings' rates yet another smile. It is an elegant plant with green leaves and deep purple veining that closely resembles the pattern of netting. All I imagine when I pass this plant are the old movies starring Marlene Dietrich, posed in a chair, wearing those glorious stockings and singing in a smoky voice. 'Fishnet Stockings' is a mounding coleus that makes a regal statement in its surroundings.
'Alligator Tears,' a play on words for crocodile tears, is yet another must-have coleus. This one is a bit taller and can stand on its own in containers or beds. It has an elliptical leaf that is bordered in green with a creamy yellow tear-drop center. It does look like the squinty eye of the alligator/crocodile, but there is no fear, just delight in this wonderful pattern.
Coleus can be overwintered as houseplants. Do not take the whole plant inside; it will get leggy and unhappy with the move. Instead, take cuttings of 3 to 4 inches above the leaf node before the temperature falls to 60 degrees. These stems can be placed in water until they develop good roots. At this point, transplant them into small containers filled with a good quality potting mix. Heat, good light, humidity from a pebble tray, and misting should get them through the winter and ready for transplant to the garden when the weather warms reliably.
Many of the good local nurseries have excellent coleus selections. 'Super Sun' and 'Solar' are varieties that can take more sunlight. The ducksfoot hybrids can withstand more drought. Romence Gardens stocks 'Alligator Tears,' and Rosy Dawn Gardens supplies 'Inky Fingers' and 'Fishnet Stockings.'
With coleus, selection is the biggest problem because you will want them all!
Susan Silverman, a master gardener from Murrysville, was a co-winner, large garden category, of the 2006 Great Gardens contest.