Each year, the summer flower show in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory presents a tapestry of magnificent colors and textures with plants that were popular in Victorian gardens and traditional bedding schemes. With their bold leaves and distinctive colors, the stars are always cannas, coleus, and caladiums.
ColeusColeus (now with the genus Solenostemon) are an old-fashioned plant that now comes in a whole range of outrageous colors and patterns, from chartreuse to pale pink and fiery orange to deep purple-black. The shape and texture of the foliage is even more varied, ranging from huge to tiny leaves with all sorts of scalloped edging, ruffles, and frills. You may have to pay a little more for these newer cultivars. But once you know how, it’s easy to propagate your own and make enough plants for your garden and to share with friends.
To propagate simply take a cutting from your plant. Cut below a leaf node (where the leaves attach), and pull off the lower leaves. Remember to cut off the growing tip if a flower is starting to form. Place in potting soil and keep moist. Coleus are tender perennials and will be killed by the first frost. Take cuttings in the early fall to over-winter as houseplants. Keep these plants in a bright area throughout the winter and feed once a month. In March take another batch of cuttings to place outside in your garden. Cuttings can also be rooted in damp sand, damp vermiculite, or even in a glass of water.
Once outside, coleus are some of the easiest, no-fuss plants in your garden. They will thrive in sun, partial shade, and full shade. Some varieties do better in certain situations than others, but overall they are very adaptable. If you are moving coleus from sun to shade or vice versa, the trick is a gradual transition. Coleus thrive in average garden soil. They like moist, well-drained conditions. If a plant dries out and wilts, water immediately to revive.
Coleus benefit from a good shearing when they are small plants (around 6 inches tall). We like Joyce Chen Pruning Shears for this task. Designed with a retractable spring action, these pruning shears are strong yet lightweight and easy to use. The curved stainless steel blades cut flowers, woody stems, and small branches up to1/4"’ thick.
This pruning—cutting the branches back to just above a leaf node—induces the plant to produce more shoots and creates a full, well-branched specimen. Once grown, coleus can be constantly pruned to create a compact, formal look or left to grow into an informal flowering plant. The flowers are fairly insignificant light purple spires. If left to go to seed, the plant will complete its life cycle and die. Coleus will grow into large, voluptuous plants from 12 inches to 2 feet tall, depending on the variety. They take up very little root space and work exceptionally well in containers to create colorful displays.
Mix and match coleus with other plants; their bright or subtle colors make great combinations, picking up and playing off other colors in a display. They also make wonderful bedding plants. Several varieties can be planted in large masses to create a tapestry of color and texture.
Coleus, Rainbow Foliage for Containers and Gardens, by Ray Rogers is a comprehensive resource on this plant species. It offers equal parts inspiration and practical advice, with history, plant characteristics, problem solving, propagating, and tips on designing with coleus in both containers and in the garden.
Read on, to learn about growing cannas and caladiums.