There's nothing subtle about coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides). In Victorian times these most extroverted of annuals reigned supreme in parlors, conservatories and gaudy bedding schemes. Out of vogue for nearly a century, coleus were scorned as too fussy and frilly, too obvious, for modern gardens — until all plants tropical catapulted back into fashion, bringing a...

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There’s nothing subtle about coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides). In Victorian times these most extroverted of annuals reigned supreme in parlors, conservatories and gaudy bedding schemes. Out of vogue for nearly a century, coleus were scorned as too fussy and frilly, too obvious, for modern gardens — until all plants tropical catapulted back into fashion, bringing a stunning array of coleus into the nurseries and our gardens.

Paging through the new book “Coleus: Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens” by Ray Rogers, with photos by Richard Hartlage (Timber Press, $29.95) is like looking at a fine-art catalog or an old book of fabulous wallpaper prints. Coleus nearly jump off the page in a kaleidoscope of spots, splatters, freckles, leaf shapes, textures and oh-so seductive colors! There’s something about the texture of coleus leaves that exaggerates the intensity of burgundy, orange, lime, rose and magenta.

Hartlage raised coleus for more than 20 years, amassing the collection shown in the book. As a child, Rogers grew these peacocks of the plant world from a Punch-n-Gro seed kit. He became newly enamored when he saw the plants at Color Farm produced by Vern Ogren, whom Rogers calls “the godfather of the modern coleus movement.”

Despite how smashing coleus appear in photos, out in the garden they can look as out-of-place as a shiny, new car parked in an old garage (with a nod to Neil Young for the metaphor). In my own garden, I’ve been happy with only the smaller-leafed kinds (called “duck-foot cultivars”) like the chartreuse-and-chocolate ‘Inky Fingers.’ Last summer I ventured out of my comfort zone to grow extravagant, coppery-orange ‘Sedona,’ but I kept it corralled in a pot all by itself. The problem is how to find common ground, so to speak, between such flamboyant “It Girl” plants and the rest of your garden.

Which makes the chapter “Coleus in the Garden” the most useful in the entire book. Who would have thought finely-textured ‘India Frills’ would look so natural foaming up around the base of cannas and giant reeds? Or that an irregular ribbon of deeply purple ‘Dark Star’ could serve as mediator in a bed of disparate foliage? Coleus used as skirting or played off plants with tall and spiky shapes, or grown at the base of shrubs and tall ornamental grasses — in all these schemes coleus look right at home.

Which of the 225 luscious varieties pictured in the book tempt the expert author and photographer? Rogers promptly names the dazzling chartreuse and pink-red ‘Alabama Sunset’ because it is “a strong grower for seemingly everybody, and it changes in response to light and heat, offering added interest.”

He admires ‘Purple Haze’ for the dark cast to the new growth as well as over the entire plant in early and late light. “It appears to be an inexplicable name for a yellow-edged orange coleus — until you get to know it better,” says Rogers.

He expects the new ‘Lancelot Velvet Mocha’ to take the gardening world by storm. “Its dark brown/red/purple leaves knock the socks off everyone who sees it.”

Hartlage’s favorite is ‘Buttercream’ with its mouthwatering frills of green and butter yellow.

Both men name ‘Inky Fingers’ as a winner for its trailing habit, diminutive size and charming coloration.

Rogers points out it’s a myth that coleus need mostly shade. All but the palest pink or yellow ones require at least a few hours of morning sun to bring out their vibrant coloration, and most can take as much sun as you can give them here in the Northwest. But remember to water; coleus wilt quickly if they dry out.

Where to find a good selection? Local nurseries, especially Wells-Medina and Molbak’s, make a point of stocking a variety of coleus. Check out the Web page for Rogers’ guru at www.colorfarm.com. These prima donna plants even have their own search service at www.coleusfinder.org.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.