Where Have All The Coleus Gone?

 

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!

 

Solenostemon ‘Pineapple Beauty’, White Flower Farm USA

 

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.

 

Solenostemon ‘Henna’

 

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.

 

Solenostemon ‘Gay’s Delight’, Primrose Cottage Nursery

 

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.

 

Solenostemon ‘Campfire’ (photo Horlings Plants USA)

 

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.

 

Solenostemon ‘Flame Thrower’ from a terrific selection at White Flower Farm USA

 

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.

 

A classic coleus, Solenostemon ‘Mainstreet Granville Street’ from White Flower Farm USA

 

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.

 

This is exactly how I hope my garden might look in a month or so!

 

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.

 

Choose from 24 varieties at Dibleys Nurseries

 

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))

 

Solenostemon ‘Shiny Shoes’, White Flower Farm USA

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45 thoughts on “Where Have All The Coleus Gone?

  1. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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

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  2. 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?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. 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 👍

        Liked by 1 person

  3. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. 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!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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.

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  8. 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

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  9. 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………..

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  10. 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.

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  11. 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.

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  12. 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!

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    1. 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!

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  13. 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.

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  14. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 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!

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  15. 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

    Liked by 1 person

  16. 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.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. 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!

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