University of Illinois Extension

Coleus: A Colorful Addition

Looking for ways to keep your garden in the pink, green, red, yellow, burgundy, or orange? Coleus is just the plant to get the job done. Coleus has become the hosta of the annual world with over 600 cutting varieties and 30 seed varieties,” said Greg Stack, U of I horticulturist. “There is color, leaf texture, and size to fit everyone’s needs.”

Shortly after arriving in American gardens in the 1800s, coleus became the talk of the town in Victorian gardens. Its colors were mostly muted and dark, but they were found tucked into shady borders and pots. As times and tastes changed, so did the interest in coleus.

“They were soon regarded as old-fashioned, tough to care for plants that only the very dedicated gardener would include in the landscape,” said Stack. “How times have changed.

“With the introduction of newer, leafier varieties in the 1940s and the explosion of breeding work in the 1990s, coleus is once again popular and the go-to plant for color. Even better, they have come out of the shade and entered the full sun garden more colorful than ever.”

For years, Stack noted, coleus was only grown in the shade where its colors would maintain themselves and not fade. Now, with all of the sun types of coleus, they can be mixed with full sun annuals where their colors are intense and bright.

“There are still many varieties of coleus for the shade garden,” Stack said. “Old standards that are still good for the shade include the ‘Wizards’, ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Carefree’, and ‘Rainbow’. These seed-grown varieties are available from many garden centers as transplants either as mixes or straight colors.

“Put them out after all danger of frost is past. They can also easily be grown from seed indoors eight to 10 weeks before the last frost date in your area. In addition to these there are approximately 33 other seed-grown coleus still available.”

The latest addition to the shade coleus line is the ‘Kong’ coleus.

“Like its namesake, the leaves on the plant are enormous,” said Stack. “They are excellent for shade and their size makes them plants that will turn heads. They are great for gardens or in containers.”

If you choose the right ones, coleus will follow along when you move toward the sun. There has been an explosion of work in bringing more sun-tolerant coleus to the gardener. There are over 600 named varieties in the marketplace and many are suitable for the sun.

“This is where it can get confusing,” Stack explained. “The whole vegetative coleus arena is filled with coleuses that often come very close to looking like another coleus with a different name. So when you are out shopping, enjoy the plant for what it is and not so much that one place calls it one thing and another calls it something else.”

Sun-tolerant coleus enjoy being in full sun where their colors are at their best. While they will grow in the shade, the colors may get a little subdued or muddy.

“Of the hundreds of varieties in the marketplace, here are a few to consider and get started on your coleus addiction,” Stack said. “Under the name of Solar Series there is a whole color palette to choose from. ’Solar Flare’ offers green leaves with a red center and yellow edge; ‘Solar Furnace’ has deep red leaves; ‘Solar Storm’ has multi-colored green, red, and bronze foliage; ‘Solar Eclipse’ produces cherry red leaves with black borders and one of the largest in the Solar series is ‘Solar Mahogany Mist’, which has huge multi-colored leaves on a large plant.

“Coleus in the Solar series offer exceptional color and dependable garden performance.”
For some novelty coleus, Stack recommends ‘Flirting Skirts’, sometimes called ‘Hurricane Jenni’. The round, multi-colored leaves in red and yellow are heavily serrated and somewhat wavy like a skirt.

“And don’t miss ‘Kiwi Fern’” he said. “The elongated, twisted, fringed leaves offer muted colors of green, brown/red, and yellow. Truly a novelty.

“’Ducksfoot Purple’ is attractive with small leaves. This dark-colored coleus grows into a very compact round ball. From afar, they look like black bowling balls.”

For a touch of yellow in the garden, look to ‘Chartreuse’ and ‘Big Blonde’.

“’Big Blonde’ is a very large plant that grows up to three feet tall with yellow foliage and dark-colored stems--providing a nice contrast,” he said.

Coleus is a great addition to the garden. They are at home growing in the ground or in mixed containers or all by themselves as specimen plants. They are not demanding plants, asking only for a well-drained garden soil, watering when it gets dry, and an occasional pinch to control plant height and to remove flowers which tend to detract from the main show which is leaves.

“For more on coleus, a great place to look for information about the plant and places that are growing them for the market is,” said Stack.
“There are so many coleus discussed it may make you want to dig up just a little more sod for ‘just one more plant.’ “