You may already know that I don't like many trees or shrubs with leaves that are purple, red, brown or any other color but green. Oddly, I feel differently about flowering annuals and perennials. Their desirable ornamental characteristics can include foliage texture, color and variegation patterns, with or without the flowers.
Coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) is one annual where the beauty of the colorful leaves far surpasses the beauty of the rather insignificant flowers. Any flower buds are usually pinched off before they get a chance to bloom.
If you're like me, you may have dismissed coleus many years ago. "Old school" coleus only grew well in partial shade and didn't like summer heat. Coleus grown in full sun developed bleached and sunburned leaves. However, within the last few years, a "new breed" of coleus has generated a renewed interest in this annual bedding plant.
Native to Southeast Asia, coleus gained favor among plant fanciers in Victorian England. Old school coleus was popular as a bedding plant in the U.S. in the '70s and '80s, but failed to keep the interest of gardeners.
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Two years ago I noticed some spectacular exotic-looking coleus with brilliantly colored leaves that were much different from the ones I'd known in the past. I read the plant tags and found out that most of these new coleus were heat and sun tolerant. I decided to give them a try.
I planted several different ones in a wine barrel planter on the southwest side of my house in an area surrounded by concrete. The heat and sun were extreme. Only a few developed some sun-scorched or bleached leaves. I was impressed.
Coleus needs a well-drained soil in the garden or a well-aerated potting mix in containers with adequate drainage. The soil should be kept moderately moist and the plants shouldn't be allowed to wilt. Check the label as well, because some new varieties will still need partial shade.
For a bushy coleus plant, pinch back the new growth to encourage branching, especially early in the season. If your potting mix doesn't already contain a slow-release fertilizer, add some at planting time or apply a light rate of water-soluble fertilizer once a month.
There are three general types of coleus. These include the low (12 to 18 inches tall) growing trailing type; the bushy mid-size (18 to 25 inches tall) type; and the tall (25 inches or taller) upright type. The trailing and bushy types work well in containers, but the tall uprights will be too big for most containers unless planted alone as a specimen plant.
The number of new varieties is growing. The foliage is spectacular and intriguing in contrasting patterns of a wide spectrum of colors. Many of these new varieties have capriciously descriptive names, such as Fishnet Stockings and Duckfoot. To see pictures of many of the newer varieties, go to www.coleusfinder.org.
Give coleus a try this year. It's fun to use these easy-to-grow annuals to create an exotic looking container garden.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Extension Office in Benton County.