Coleus is sometimes called the poor man’s Croton because it matches and even surpasses its stately rival in the brightness and colour range of its foliage, and it does this at a fraction of the cost. You can, of course, buy plants in pots but it is easily raised from cuttings or seed. There is another advantage – Coleus is easy to care for, unlike the fussy and demanding Croton.
There are features where Coleus is clearly inferior to the imposing and long-lived Croton. The bushy 1 ft high plants are soft-stemmed and need pinching out regularly to stop the plant becoming leggy and defoliated. In addition the specimens remain attractive for only a short time – they can be overwintered but the best plan is to treat this foliage plant as an annual by sowing seeds or taking cuttings each spring.
Coleus offers a multicoloured display at minimum cost if you follow a few simple rules. Good light is essential – winter colours are more muted than summer ones. Use soft water if you can and the compost should be only just moist during the winter months. Mist the leaves in summer and keep watch for aphids.
Types of Coleus
There is a bewildering choice of Coleus blumei hybrids. The usual height is 1-2 ft, but dwarf varieties such as Sabre are available. Most have nettle-like leaves – there are also ruffled ones (e.g The Chief), frilly ones (e.g Firebird) and wavy-edged ones (e.g Butterfly). There is no basic colours of plants. Almost every conceivable mixture can be found. There are some attractive single-coloured varieties, such as Golden Bedder (yellow) and Volcano (deep red), but the usual choice is for a multicoloured Coleus. Several varieties such as Scarlet Poncho, Milky Way and Fashion Parade can be grown from seed. The largest and most colorful leaves are borne by Coleus verschaffeltii – numerous varieties are available from specialist suppliers.
Secrets of success
Temperature: Average warmth
Light: Give as much light as possible, but shade from summer noonday sun.
Water: Keep compost moistat all times, and reduce watering in winter. Use rainwater if tap water is hard.
Reppoting: Cut back and repot in spring.
Propagation: Take stem cuttings in spring or summer. Alternatively sow seeds in early spring.