April 18, 2024

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If we were to explain what a variety in plants used in gardening, coleus (Coleus scutellarioides) might be a perfect example. It has had as many hybridizations as we can imagine, and that translates into a multitude of shapes and colors, that is, in varieties different within the same species. The list is extensive, as are the huge number of colors it can have. So many that the coleus could be called the rainbow plant without embarrassment. Let’s review the shades that are possible in its leaves: from dark green to the lightest green, through grass green and pastel green; reddish and crimson, pink or fuchsia, purple or bronze colors. But they could not miss the yellows and oranges, not even the white. As if all these shades weren’t enough, the coleus can be seen adorned with spikes of vibrant blue flowers, which contrast greatly with the warm-colored leaves. We will return to their inflorescences in a few lines.

The infinity of color combinations is seasoned by yet another variation: the margins of its leaves. In general, they tend to be serrated, but even have a serrated, lobed or practically entire edge, with almost no notches of any kind. Surprising so much variation? It’s not over yet! In the same way, we observe how the shapes of its leaves are also a compendium of patterns: from narrower to wider, from heart-shaped to almost lanceolate. We will no longer investigate more combinations… or yes. It only remains to add that the color spots can be distributed on the sheet in many ways: dotted, like a painter who cleans his brush on his sheets, irregular spots or staining almost the entire surface of the sheet, to give just a few examples.

Three varieties of coleus growing together.
Three varieties of coleus growing together.Agnes Alix

One aspect of its botanical classification that is surprising is that it is a plant from the same family as rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus), of thyme (thymus vulgaris) or peppermints and mints (Mentha spp.): the family Lamiaceae, characterized by flowers with a very prominent lip.

Coleos in the garden of Cap Roig, in Girona, in the summer of 2022.
Coleos in the garden of Cap Roig, in Girona, in the summer of 2022.Edward Beard

Its origin is in Southeast Asia, from where it has been distributed beyond the seas, colonizing many warm regions of the planet and up to the last house in the last century. So much popularity made it become a very common plant. This is due, in large part and ignoring its beauty, to the incredible ease of reproducing it. All you need is a piece of any stem: with a precise cut below a node and removing the leaves from that same node, all that remains is to submerge the cutting in a glass of water. The miracle of seeing new roots appear will not be long in coming, and thus cloning is carried out without major problems. The gardener Carlos Moreno fondly remembers the origin of the coleus that he has cared for for years: “It belongs to my grandmother. She didn’t buy it, but it comes from her sister’s garden, who plucked a stem and poked it sweetly into one of her many pots. If I’m honest, it’s the best coleus I’ve ever seen. My grandmother always had it in its maximum splendor”.

A variety of coleus with a very colorful design.
A variety of coleus with a very colorful design.Edward Beard

It is also possible to reproduce it through seed, as Maxime Carton does in Copenhagen (Denmark). This other French gardener thus manages to “give color to the pots in the summer,” he says. “As I buy seeds that come mixed, you don’t know the type of coleus that will come out,” which he ensures that makes the process a surprise.

To obtain a dense and leafy coleus there is an essential task: pinching. When we see that the stem of the plant is elongating, we cut just above the last pair of more developed leaves. Wherever we have pruned, two stems will emerge, instead of the only one that the plant showed, and in this way we will achieve thicker foliage. If we do not apply this clamping, it is very likely that we will have a lanky coleus with few branches. As soon as the two new stems grow a little more, we repeat the pinching operation on each one, to get even more branches on the plant. If the plant is very old, and we only see stems without leaves in the lower part, we can resort to a more energetic pruning, cutting above a node that has leaves in the lower part of the plant.

A coleus in full bloom in the Madrid mountains.
A coleus in full bloom in the Madrid mountains.ana beard

If we want the coleus to look good colors, very intense light is essential. Direct sun is not essential, but highly recommended. When you have it for at least a couple of hours we will extract all the colors that its pigments are capable of producing. Then, when the plant is comfortable, it will begin to flower. There are people who prefer to cut their flowers, so that they can focus their energy on producing only leaves. Those who leave them enjoy unique bluish colors, which remind us of the aforementioned relationship with rosemary and its light blue flowers.

Coleos can live all year outside in the warmer locations of the Iberian Peninsula and the islands. In those colder regions it is possible to grow them outside in the warmer months, to put them inside the houses when the temperatures drop. When the weeks of spring return, it can be taken out on the terrace again, after pruning to facilitate renewed growth. Coleus, no matter how much used, has to stop brightening our days with its colors.

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