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Coleus: Colorful, Leafy, and Luxurious

Coleus are eye-dazzlers, easy-going plants with impossibly colorful leaves. They’re magnificent on their own in a flower pot, and the flash of their foliage lights up a flower bed.

Coleus are tender tropical plants grown for their leaves, not for their flowers. The leaf patterns are distinctly on the wild side — spotted, splashed, and artistically edged in shades of purple, yellow, pink, intense red, and luminous chartreuse. They thrive in heat. For generations, rooted cuttings of fancy coleus plants were simply passed along from one gardener to another but the market opened up in recent years and the selection of coleus varieties is now bigger than ever.

Gardeners have always found creative ways to use coleus. In the 19th century, they were the stars of Victorian bedding schemes: one older garden book contains tantalizing references to coleus mosaics, including a profile of George Washington in coleus at the Boston Public Gardens.

Today coleus are more often found in flower pots. Jimmy Turner, director of the Dallas Arboretum, shows off coleus in pots of all kinds at the 66-acre display garden. He favors combinations that capture the beauty of a complex flower arrangement, but he also likes simple combinations of just two or three plants. Coleus work well in both situations: they don’t get lost in a mixed planting with dramatic elephant’s ears, castor beans, trailing sweet-potato vines, or towering canna lilies, and they’re sophisticated enough to pair gracefully with ferns, heucheras, or luminous blue scaevola. Turner adds coleus to pots with silver, purple, blue, and pink flowers, and also uses them as bright spotlights, plopping a pot full of luxurious, chartreuse-leafed coleus in a bed that needs a jolt of color.

Few plants are more indulgent of novice gardeners than coleus. They thrive in part shade and need little more than regular watering to flourish all summer long. If the plants send up flower spikes, pinch them off — its the leaves you’re after, and they are show-stoppers.

Pairing up with coleus

There are dozens of different coleus, but they all have one thing in common: they are easy to grow and flourish in summer heat. Some coleus are trailers, great for hanging baskets; most are just the right size to fill a pot on the porch or a spot in a perennial border. Here are some ideas and combinations to try:

  • Flouncy coleus makes a handsome counterpoint to the spiky leaves and bottle-brush flowers of fountain grass.
  • Pair inky-leaf coleus with Artemesia, Plectranthus, dusty Miller, and other silver-foliage plants.
  • White alyssum flowers makes a lacy edge around rosy pink or chocolate-leaf coleus varieties.
  • The green border around some coleus leaves matches perfectly with the chartreuse leaves of ornamental sweet potato 'Marguerite'.
  • Try bold coleus with the yellow-striped leaves of canna 'Pretoria'.
  • Go ahead, plant coleus with vegetables in pots: the purples, pinks, and greens in coleus leaves look great with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Several options are available to overwinter a favorite geranium. The first is to cut it back and pot it up as a houseplant for the winter to replant outside in the spring. The second is to pull it up, brush off any clinging soil, and hang it upside down in a cool, humid basement until replanting in spring. Or, you can cut 4-inch lengths of new stem and put them in water or damp vermiculite to root. Once rooted, transfer to individual pots and treat as houseplants.