When a plant does well in my garden, I want to grow more of it. As a gardening strategy, this makes perfect sense. So often we struggle on, trying to grow things that are not best suited to our conditions. Then we ask ourselves why we fail. I wonder how many people have abandoned gardening based on failure to maintain a baize-like lawn, a compact lavender bush or some tender beauty pushed to the front of the garden centre bench? My sincere advice is not to bother in the first place. Unless you are very skilled, very determined or very fortunate, you are heading for bitter disappointment. Celebrating and building on what grows well in a garden is a sound philosophy. That’s why my tiny plot is rammed with agapanthus, zantedeschia, hedychiums, begonias and cannas. Hey, I should probably up sticks and move to South Africa or South East Asia rather than soldiering on here in East Kent!
On many occasions over the last decade I have planted coleus in my garden, usually in pots. Provided they are a decent size and adequately hardened-off they perform brilliantly in my cool, dappled courtyard, rewarding me for months with boldly splashed, feathered or bordered foliage. When it comes to vibrant, even zany leaves, coleus have few peers. I adore them for that. The nondescript flower stems, mauve and elongated like a poor-man’s salvia, are normally pinched out to extend the foliage display. This does eventually become something of a futile task, but cuttings can be rooted in a glass of water and vigorous replacements created within weeks. Coleus can be grown indoors or outdoors, appreciating a degree of protection from scorching sun and benefitting from regular watering.
This summer my local garden centre is offering an irresistible coleus (now correctly reclassified as solenostemon), named ‘Henna’. I’ve now purchased ten of them, and they were cheap at half the price. Already substantial plants, they have doubled in size over two weeks and everyone is commenting on their bold, tooth-edged foliage coloured Chartreuse green and brick-red.
‘Success!’, I think, ‘I’ll get hold of some other varieties’. I search my mind and recall a cultivar named ‘Gay’s Delight’ (can’t imagine why that stuck with me), an acid-yellow coleus with dramatic black venation. I grew it at some point over the last decade at a time when I didn’t have a greenhouse to keep tender plants alive over winter. I Google ‘Coleus Gay’s Delight‘. The RHS website lists a single supplier. A single supplier, for an easy-to-grow plant with an Award of Garden Merit? I am surprised. I click-through to Primrose Cottage Plants in Cheshire and find a photograph of ‘Gay’s Delight’, but no further details and no means to buy.
Unperturbed, I return to the RHS website to see what varieties might be more readily available. Perhaps I had been searching for the rarest of all coleus …. which would be typical of me. Ahh, yes, 431 results for solenostemon. Brilliant. Then I begin to scroll through the list. The first variety, ‘China Rose’, is a classic coleus with beefy, burgundy, serrated leaves, each with a fuchsia-pink flash down the mid-rib. It also has an AGM … but no suppliers listed. Odd. Next up, ‘Buttermilk’ is a slightly tamer creature with lemon-yellow leaves generously edged in Granny Smith green. Also no suppliers listed here either. Number three is ‘Campfire’, shortlisted for the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year and winner of the People’s Choice Award for best new summer flower in the same year. Not bad for a plant that isn’t grown for its blooms. Two suppliers this time. Really? Only two? Primrose Cottage again, and Hillview Hardy Plants who actually do appear to have plants available at £8 each if you search really hard for them.
Mildly encouraged, I continue scrolling down the RHS list. On the first two pages, only the cultivar ‘Henna’, which I already have, has two suppliers listed, the rest have none or one. By page three of forty-two, the RHS do not even display a photograph. Now feeling slightly irritated, I return to Google and search ‘buy coleus plants UK‘. First up come Dibleys Nurseries, best known for their splendid offering of streptocarpus and begonias. I shall return to them shortly. From then on the top results are all for seeds or plug plants of mixed varieties, which is a result, but not the one I am after.
Like many budding gardeners I grew coleus from seed when I was a child, and still recall the experience vividly now. While the flowering plants would take weeks to start doing anything interesting, coleus would begin to produce colourful foliage immediately after the seed leaves. Even these might be speckled or bronzed. Coleus provide as close to instant gratification as any plant grown from seed.
Too late to start from scratch with seed and too fussy about what colours I might receive in a mixed tray, I click through to a website called Coleus Finder. Created by enthusiast Wouter Addink, Coleus Finder could well be to coleus what the Millenium Seed Bank is to preserving genetic diversity. It lists 570 coleus varieties from ‘Alabama’ to ‘Zebra’, each with a photograph (RHS please note). The diversity of form and colour is incredible and by page two I am salivating. A helpful list of suppliers from around the world leads me to believe coleus might be considerably more popular in the USA than they are in the UK. Most of the suppliers listed on this side of the Atlantic are either seed suppliers, out of business, or do not offer mail-order. Another dead-end as far as my purchases were concerned. J. Parker’s offered some hope of obtaining ‘Campfire’ and ‘Gay’s Delight’ as part of a ‘unique collection of coleus that demands attention in any garden‘, but were out of stock of all coleus, even cat shoo, Coleus canina, which is good for only one thing – deterring cats.
I return to Dibleys Nurseries, which I was avoiding until this point because they only supply coleus as part of a collection of six, twelve or twenty-four plants, albeit one can select from named cultivars. I love Dibleys but the ordering process was not smooth, and the varieties available differed from the miniscule photographs displayed. None of them were coleus I was especially looking for, but by this point I was not going to be fussy. Dibleys provide no indication of what size the plants might be and no individual descriptions of the cultivars on offer. Having had a couple of glasses of wine by this stage, I decided on eight varieties, three plants of each. I figure that any I don’t like can be grown on and sold at my garden open weekend in August. Knowing me I will love them all. The list includes ‘Autumn Rainbow’, ‘Combat’ AGM, ‘Kiwi Fern’, ‘Durham Gala’ AGM, ‘Lord Falmouth’ AGM, ‘Pineapplette’, ‘Winsome’ AGM and ‘Walter Turner’ AGM. When they arrive, I shall provide a full report.
My experience leads me to believe that coleus are in crisis here in Britain. As far as I can determine there is no National Collection, nor specialist grower in the UK. I can find only two books on coleus, both long out of print but now on their way to The Watch House library courtesy of Amazon. The more recent title, published by Timber Press in 2008, heralds coleus’ dramatic comeback. If it happened, I blinked and missed it. The earlier volume, Coleus: A Guide to Cultivation and Identification was published in 1974, which must be approximately the last time anyone here took any interest these poor plants.
The majority of coleus offered for sale in the UK are presented as mixed bedding for the end consumer, or as wholesale plug plants for nurseries to grow on. Where they go after that, heaven only knows. In an age when house plants are back in vogue and we’ve reconnected with the flamboyance of flowers such as the dahlia and the gladiolus, why are coleus still consigned to the Z list of cultivated plants? They may not be hardy, but the range of leaf shapes and colours knocks the much adored hosta into a cocked hat. Coleus need a champion. I might even feel compelled to be that champion if my new purchases do well. I shall be dropping Wouter Addink a line to get his advice, that’s for sure. Join me, and give a coleus a chance.
Of course, what will happen now is that I will stroll into Tesco this evening and find huge trolleys of wondrous coleus for sale, or you will all comment and tell me there’s some secret source on the dark web that I should be visiting to satisfy my new-found craving. Should either happen I’d be very happy. Come on, prove me wrong …. or better still send me cuttings. Save our Solenostemon! Three Cheers for Coleus! I will save you from oblivion no matter what. TFG.
(Lead image: Giant Exhibition Complete Mix Coleus (Photograph Park Seed))
Categories: Container gardening, Foliage, House Plants, Musings, Photography, Plant Portraits, Plants, Seeds and Sowing
53 comments On "Where Have All The Coleus Gone?"
Coleus is reliably available at local nurseries here in Los Angeles, but I haven’t found them easy at all so haven’t gained much experience with making them happy. However — friends on the humid, hot East Coast, with a much shorter growing season, (and where White Flower Farm is located), have fabulous success with coleus and overwinter cuttings religiously. Your post has inspired me to try them again this summer, so thanks for that!
I wish you the best of luck Denise. The weather here, as you know, is not Californian! We have warm days and coolish nights, and no part of my garden gets sun all day. Coleus appear to tolerate this pretty well, holding their colour. However I do have to be very vigilant where slugs and snails are concerned. They love a solenostemon snack! Dan
This may or may not help but solenostemon were reclassified to plectranthus a few years ago… although rumour has it they are now back to cold is
I love them also!
One of the glasshouse guys at Hampton court did hold the national collection if that’s of any use to you?
Thanks for that tip. I shall follow up. Regarding the botanical name, I believe some coleus did become plectranthus, but not the ones I am writing about. They are solenostemon, for now at least, according to the RHS.
Lol, it’s so frustrating! I use the plant database, set up by botanical gardens as the RHS can be incredibly out of date
I heard yesterday that rosmarinus officionalis is now salvia rosmarinus
Twitter is good for keeping up with nomenclature 👍
Oh no! That is ridiculous. I’m quite happy to remain in the dark ages as far as naming is required. Most people who read my blog still call a chrysanthemum a chrysanthemum and a coleus and coleus. Thank goodness.
Do they still call a sedum a sedum
A rosemary a rosemary
And a schizostylus a schizostylus 😉
Did I mention rosemary is now classified as a salvia 😂😂😂
I love mayanas but I am only growing the green ones now. The rest died on me years ago. thank you for posting the different varieties of this plant.
My pleasure Arlene. I was not familiar with mayana as a common name for these plants, so I’ve learned something new today, thank you! I hope you will try again with some of the colourful ones when the time is right. Dan
Will do Dan!
I love Coleus! Probably the most psychedelic looking plant ever! Last summer I worked as a seasonal gardener and there were only two London households that had this beautiful plant growing. At that time I didn’t know what Coleus was but I immediately fell in love with it right there. Great post, Dan!
Thanks Jason. I particularly enjoyed writing this one.
Happy to sell you some cuttings from London.
I have loads of varieties.
What a brilliant post – thank you so much; I can totally see why you love these plants and why they love you! Also thank you for the lovely Instagram photo of your garden this morning (I think it was this morning?! Somehow it suddenly seems ages ago!) My morning inspection of the garden is among my favourite times of the day!
Hi Jean. Yes, I love to go out in the morning, even if it’s just for 5 minutes, which it often is. I don’t leave myself a lot of time between getting up and catching my train into London.
I have put a little video on my Instagram story this morning and hope to make a longer one tonight, to celebrate the longest day. That came up quickly this year didn’t it? Feels like summer’s only just beginning. Dan
I’m a first time Coleus grower and I am not doing too great!
A new opening for you, Dan- specialist Coleus breeder and grower! They are a plant I’ve always known about, but considered quite run of the mill( obviously never looked at them carefully) and never imagined there would be such a wide variety.
Guess what I strolled into tesco and did indeed buy a tray of coleus, 6 gorgeous plants for 3 whole English pounds 😊
As loujnicholls wrote above, I think Coleus/Solenostamen is now reclassified as Plectranthus. Or did I miss something after that? Anyway, yes, I think they are having a surge in popularity here in the USA, just as dahlias have over the last 10 years or so. An internet search here finds lots of different mail order nurseries that have lots of varieties to choose from. And since they do root so well in water, I have been taking cuttings in the autumn and rooting them in water to pot up in winter. They live just fine in a sunny winter window and then can be transitions outside in spring. No greenhouse required.
What a coincidence, there was also wine involved when I placed my Rosy Dawn Nursery Coleus order last winter. It’s easy to get carried away.
So, if I’ve understood correctly, Coleus could be a houseplant? They look so beautiful but my garden is just too dry for them and I wouldn’t like to have to dig them up every year.
My small potted coleus used to grow like fluffy ground cover to obscure the soil of large houseplant trees. They are quite easy to grow, but once they decide to bloom, it is not easy to keep all the developing floral spikes nipped off.
Thank you for the information, Tony.
You are welcome.
Plants go in an out of fashion, of course, and here in the Midwest, they seem to be enjoying a fair measure of popularity — although there are probably only a couple dozen types sold in garden centers locally. I hope you’re able to find some specialty kinds (and I wouldn’t discount what you might find if you visit the local garden centers and big box stores…). I’ll pay particular attention to coleus when I’m out shopping this week! Best, -Beth
That is what I was thinking. They were quite popular years ago, and are about due for a comeback. (I just noticed what Sally said below.)
During the 60s, 70s and even 80s you’d find the Coleus plant on every office window!!
Then they seemed to vanish – ‘gone out of fashion’. Garden centers here in Co Mayo are not offering them for sale. I called in to see a friend last week and to my delight there in her kitchen was a coleus. I am now rooting a cutting in water and this morning I see roots appearing. So enjoyed your colour full post………..
Coleus would work beautifully if potted inside some original West German Pottery from the late ’60s early ’70s. It’s like they were made for each other.
Good shout. I’m a firm believer in more is more!
Here’s someone who does their own spin on it. Love this a lot!
Fabulous. A niche that very much needed filling. I’m a Poole pottery collector so I love this look. Top Tip Jason.
Here in the U.S., a lot of people use coleus as a filler plant in mixed summer containers. It’s often sold cheaply at big-box stores and supermarkets in packs of six, usually unlabeled as to cultivar and often bedraggled. But I happen to live about a mile from a nursery that specializes in shade annuals–including coleus–and they always have a magnificent selection (https://www.urhausengreenhouses.com). I’ve been overwintering cuttings of an orange variety I bought there (don’t know its name) for three years now. As to making new plants, don’t even bother with the glass of water. Just snap off a stem and stick it in the soil. Assuming you keep the soil somewhat moist (but not too moist), your new coleus will be up and running in no time. I don’t know of another plant that’s easier to propagate.
I have never purchases a ‘cultivar’! I mean, I think of them as inexpensive (or even ‘cheap’) annuals that I get in small six packs. They are the common mixed coleus. I sometimes perpetuate those that I like most. I do not know if I have ever seen a cultivar in a nursery. That is a drag that they are no longer coleus. I can not keep up with all the changing names.
I love coleus! The beautifully-colored leaves are such a delight to the eye.
I enjoyed a really unbelievably hot visit to Kew Gardens yesterday (Sunday 24 June) and in the newly restored temperate house – lovely to see how large it is and how splendid – they have a splendid display of coleus! Clearly they have been able to get hold of seed or plants…. and I don’t think they came from their own seed bank as the plants looked remarkably like some of those that you feature in your blog. And very healthy, of course!
Of course. I’d expect nothing less! It’s many years since I last went to Kew. Isn’t that terrible? Even when I lived in London it was a bit of a trek. What’s more I get in free because JLP have a deal for partners, so I have no excuse. I’ll have to hatch a little plan to visit for some coleus appreciation. The Temperate House is a good reminder to us all that decluttering makes a space look much, much bigger!
I am enjoying your post and beautiful blog. I use Coleus in a large planter for summer interest under my porch where there is partial shade. It is used as an annual here in the U.S. and grows to be a magnificent focal point with all its color. Adding sweet potato vine along the perimeter adds a nice additional touch.
Camden Garden Centre have a good variety of coleus in so many beautiful colours.
I grew mine from seed sown in early February.They were very slow to start.I sold most in 1 litre pots through June,though potted half a dozen into 3.5 litre pots for a display in an Orangery.These are making good specimen plants.
The seed strain was (Wizard) Merlin mixed which is an improved strain.I might put them under lights next season which are much cheaper to buy and run these days.Apparently it works a treat.
I could not find any of the named vars that US nurseries offer here in the UK either Dan so seed it had to be.
The wholesale plug supplier Kernock plugs offer some vars but i did not need 50 of each.
Likewise, I spotted those, but as I don’t have room for Victorian carpet bedding I resorted to those few that Dibleys had on offer. I may try seed next year if I can find the time. Meanwhile your orangery must look a picture!
I bought my first one (Coleus Mainstreet) at the end of June from Windsor Farm Shop.(don’t all rush at once!) I love how it’s grown so much and need more! I too am shocked that they aren’t readily available at local garden centres
West Dean Gardens West Sussex had some beautiful plants in their green houses last October. ‘Crimson Ruffles’ was so gorgeous. Couldn’t find anyone to ask if I could take a cutting. I should have tried harder! I have a photo but can’t see how to add it here.
I want some too! You are not alone……..XXxx
Hello Dan! Just stumbling on you and your lovely blog, in search of coleus. I love this article, and am also wondering what’s the deal with the lack of this beauty??? I happen to follow a woman on instagram who lives in Sweden, and has these massive, incredibly beautiful China Rose coleus plants in her home. I’ve become obsessed, wanting to get my hands on a plant, but cannot even find a seed anywhere! If interested, please check out the IG account : malinbrostad and also the hashtag: palettblad Clearly, Sweden has all the coleus!
I import my coleus from Sweden and Denmark as it’s so hard to find interesting varieties here in the UK. I’ll start selling cuttings as soon as I can!
I have found some in the UK! I’ve ordered many coleus plug plants from Dibleys-shop.com in Wales. I believe they still have some in stock if interested.
here in manila ph.. the trend for coleus or mayana as we local called them..has winded down.. but there are still some new cultivars that are coming up and wow… they cost as much as one sack of rice here already 🙁 so as plain housewife.. i just make do and take care of my 95 varieties of coleus…. come rain or hot hot sun… i will never let go of my coleus .
I love coleus. Am envious of the types you have that I have not seen in the tropics where I am . Have not been successful with seeds unfortunately.
When I was a child I used to grow coleus from seed and always loved their vibrant colours and how easy they were to grow. I moved on to named varieties and even used to show them in a local garden show, “A display of 12 coleus” and always won first prize, so I have a nostalgic fondness for these lovely plants.
Fast forward forty years and I felt a yearning to grow them again, as I have quite a lot of heucheras, and have been enjoying their colourful foliage. But in my quest for coleus plants, like you I couldn’t really find any named ones other than Dibleys, and the odd nursery selling one or two varieties.
But I have found a couple of sellers on Etsy web site and one in particular looks promising called Ampel by Anas Tar, who will deliver from Sweden
I loved your coleus report. Growing up gardening- read weeding-was punishment for some shortcomings. We grew up on Air Force and army bases on the east coast, moving almost every year so very little continuity for learning how things did. One aunt had a marvelous green thumb which I didn’t inherit but I had only brief visits with her as her job sometimes had her somewhere else when we visited. A grandmother had a greenhouse attached to her house. You could find me in there when we visited. Never encouraged to touch but loved the smell of the good dirt.
Fast forward a bunch of years. College, marriage, kids, work, grad school, overtime, kids in college….. late husband would criticize my outdoor efforts so I kept him fed and watered and told him how great he was- mostly. He died, I retired, only took me 4 years to kill 8 dogwoods he had planted. They bleed to death if you trim while they’re leafed out- who knew? The lace leaf maples are still doing great as are a few other foundation plants that have managed to survive me and hired help. There have been some health issues that required hiring various yard help folk who also managed to kill an amazing number of things.
In the past 3 years I’ve gradually assumed all but the heaviest of tasks. The front yard, in full sun, has a terrific collection of cannas, roses, daylilies, herbs, and lots of other bulbs and sedums. And some kind of grass creeping into the beds that will be the death of me. In the backyard, mostly dappled or full shade, are roses and various aucubas, cannas and daylilies. More sedum and lots of various herbs, looking for coleus. I grew up surrounded by this plant that even my mother (who could kill plastic flowers) could grow. I too had not realized the resurgence of coleus until I saw the “under the sea” plants offered this year. So many gorgeous colors in pictures but also lots of dead ends.
For the past 2 months I’ve been searching for those seeds as those particular plants aren’t offered locally. Which is how I came across your wonderful blog. I will be looking forward to more of your helpful comments as you’ve voiced my same frustration. Maybe I’m just out of sync with the times. After all, I painted my living and dining rooms a lovely chartreuse with cream trim as a backdrop for my mahogany antiques. My dad suggested my color choice showed a possible need for counseling. A few years later and that was the “in” color. Maybe we’re just ahead of the next surge.
Love the post Dan. Did you manage to find any Coleus?
I specialise in them and I’m based here in the UK. I’ve always got 15-20 healthy cuttings on eBay each week.
Amazing. How do I find you on eBay Neil? Dan
I’m just coming back to Coleus here because i’m wondering if anyone else has the same problem. For me Coleus desiccates the soil it grows in and will in fact kill all the plants around it. I’ve had Coleus kill entire beddings of philodendrons in this manner…..their fine fine roots get everywhere and suck up every last bit of moisture making the soil impossible to wet again. You see so many pot combination “ideas” for coleus but I’m wondering if it’s just my experience or this is a very unsound idea? Everything does best for me with Coleus in their own pot. I’ve removed all the coleus I had growing in the ground because plants just wont thrive next to them for long and they leave large bare dead areas when removed. Lovely things but this isn’t such a lovely habit.