• T.M. O’Shaughnessy

Fashionable coleus


The multi-hued leafy coleus strikes a colourful balance with other annuals or can stand equally on its own well until the arrival of autumn.

I have to admit it was one of those plants that, whenever I saw my mother reach for it for her garden pots, I vowed to never do the same.

Coleus was the plant in question, and when I first started gardening, it somehow made me think of Victorian curtains and dusty carpets. But lately coleus has become very fashionable. One of the trends for the 2020 garden is coloured foliage, after all, especially purple and burgundy. Not only that, purple and blue are the on-trend colours in general for the garden this year, so coleus is now chic as well.

Also known as Painted Nettle, the coleus is a subtropical tender perennial which we grow as an annual in our climate.

There are many variations of its strikingly designed, jewel-tone leaves. Deep purple centres bordered with green is one. Light burgundy surrounded by dark burgundy is another. The actual flower of the coleus is no match for its dramatic leaves, so many gardeners just lop it off and let the foliage take all the glory. Experienced gardeners also pinch the ends of it to create a more full and bushy plant. The coleus takes to it all like a bee to honey.

Interestingly, coleus is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), with flowers that are quite tiny and range in color from shades of purple to true-blue to nearly white. It’s the easiest plant in the world to grow, needing no fuss and being a card-carrying member of that select group of flowers – the plant-and-forget school of gardening. The plants grow so easily you can start a new one by just rooting a stem in a glass of water.

Coleus thrives in cool, evenly moist, well-drained soil. Though keep in mind that while providing moist conditions is always good, overly soggy soil can cause root disease. Some coleus varieties handle full sun, but really, they mostly still prefer a bit of shade and given a choice, would choose direct sun in the morning only.

Once I got over thinking that coleus looked like an old fashioned Victorian ladies’ plant, I realized it could make truly striking floral arrangements.

Alongside any shade of bloom, coleus can spark up the whole look of any bouquet. In container gardening world it is a staple, and will be the thing that lives long after the heat of summer exhausts all the other plants in your pots. In fact, it’s the fall when coleus truly comes into its own when most flowers in the garden are spent.

A bouquet of just coleus leaves in a vase might not sound like much but it can make a truly interesting arrangement that will last and last – even until the pumpkins start coming in.