Crazy ’bout coleus

'El Brighto' coleus. Image courtesy of Proven Winners.

After last week’s beautiful summer foliage post, I promised you another entry devoted entirely to coleus. I’m crazy ’bout coleus, and I think you will be too when you consider all the summer gardening possibilities. As I’ve written before, tropical plants are a summer garden’s best friend. That’s not to say I don’t like flowers. You know I love flowers, and gardens definitely need flowers in spring, summer and fall to stock your pollinator buffet.

Coleus 'Golden Dreams' and 'Fishnet Stockings' seen at CAST. Note in Oklahoma's climate, 'Fishnet Stockings' needs some shade to perform at its best. I don't know about 'Golden Dreams.'
Coleus ‘Golden Dreams’ and ‘Fishnet Stockings’ seen at CAST. Note in Oklahoma’s climate, ‘Fishnet Stockings’ needs some shade to perform at its best. I don’t know about ‘Golden Dreams.’

There was a time when I didn’t think much about coleus. Sure, they were pretty, but you could only grow them in the shade, and they took tons of water. I don’t have that much shade. I never have, and I felt there were plenty of shade plants from which to choose without including a lot of coleus– my apologies to the Wizard and Kong shade coleus series. Both of these shade loving coleus series are simply grand. Even my front beds, primed to explode in spring, get plenty of afternoon sun because they face west.

'Trailing Plum Brocade' coleus from 2015.
‘Trailing Plum Brocade’ coleus from 2015.

My feelings for coleus deepened when nurseries began offering “sun” varieties. In my opinion, sun tolerant coleus are the best thing to ever happen to a hot summer garden. Even in years where blooms are burned by the sun, many varieties of sun tolerant coleus keep on shining.

See how tall the plants have grown in the greenhouse.
Some of the older varieties of coleus in the greenhouse.

I overwinter cuttings of my favorite older coleus varieties in the greenhouse. I do this because every plant isn’t offered each year. Hybridizers are always looking for the next new thing, and they only have so much greenhouse space to grow old favorites from year to year. Everything that goes on delivery trucks also has to be a certain height and size, and with coleus growing at varying rates, it’s a tricky business I’m sure. If you can stack one more level in your trucks, you make that much more money too.

'El Brighto' coleus. Image courtesy of Proven Winners.
‘El Brighto’ coleus. Image courtesy of Proven Winners.

Be assured every big company has its own line of new coleus varieties. How many of those will make it to your local or mail order nursery is all dependent upon what brokers and the big three invest in. Who are the big three? Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Home Depot. What you see available in the marketplace is partially determined by their buyers for the big three and their ongoing relationships with brands.

'Bonfire' coleus in June. It's just getting started. I bought this one from Rosy Dawn Gardens last year.
‘Bonfire’ coleus in June. It’s just getting started. I bought this one from Rosy Dawn Gardens last year.

Brokers often represent smaller nurseries, and to tell the truth, many smaller operations are leery of investing in newer plant varieties. At the California Spring Trials (CAST), it was interesting to watch hybridizers, seed and plant companies explaining why their newest euphorbia was better than one like Diamond Frost®. That’s only one example and not even a coleus. Many companies now put their best work under trademarked series names like: Main Street™ by Dümmen Orange, Under the Sea® by HortCouture and ColorBlaze® by Proven Winners, etc. Here are more of the coleus series distributed by various companies. Think of these as book or movie sequels like those created by Marvel Comics. Hybridizers hope you will remember the series name and keep coming back for more. Who can blame them? Gardeners clamor each year for new plants, and plant hybridizing in all of its various forms is an expensive business.

It was great to see all the combinations at the California Spring Trials last year. This one of Coleus 'Lava Rose,' Euphorbia 'Breathless Blush' and EnduraScape™ Hot Pink Verbena was especially pretty.
It was great to see all the combinations at the California Spring Trials last year. This one of Coleus ‘Lava Rose,’ Euphorbia ‘Breathless Blush’ and EnduraScape™ Hot Pink Verbena was especially pretty. Of course, keep in mind that this combo was grown to perfection in a greenhouse and not yet exposed to outdoor conditions.

Speaking of new varieties to my garden, I ordered a few from Rosy Dawn Gardens that I can’t find anywhere else. I saw some of these last year when I was lucky enough to attend CAST in 2015 with the National Garden Bureau. If it’s new and unique, Rosy Dawn will usually have it. However, their nursery is located in southeastern Michigan so their plants are usually way behind those I grow in my greenhouse. They’re small so I put them in my greenhouse and grow them out a bit before I plant them outside. They do have very nice root balls and acclimate very quickly. Rosy Dawn has old favorites and newer cultivars. I bought three plants of Main Street Wall Street™, two of Main St Sunset Blvd™, one of Trailing Plum Brocade, two of ‘El Brighto,’ two of ‘Spicy,’ one of ‘Stella Red,’ two of ‘Campfire’ and two of ‘Doctor Wu.’

'Campfire' coleus as seen at CAST. I think it's quite beautiful, and I'm giving it a try this year. Proven Winners has a similar one in their ColorBlaze series called Sedona. Crazy 'bout coleus
‘Campfire’ coleus as seen at CAST. I think it’s quite beautiful, and I’m giving it a try this year. Proven Winners has a similar one in their ColorBlaze series called ‘Sedona.’

I’m also looking at coleus from Bustani Plant Farm. Incidentally, Steve and Ruth Owens also carry ‘Doctor Wu’ each year, but it’s often sold out before I get to the nursery. Three varieties new to his nursery this year are: ‘Feeding Frenzy,’ ‘Gnash Rambler’ and ‘Frizzy Yellow.’ I grow ‘Gnash Rambler’–of course I do–and it’s a great one. What I love about Bustani’s coleus is that they come in two sizes, the larger pot band (4″ across, but deeper), and the gallon size. So, if you have a spot that quickly needs filling, you can plunk one of those large babies down and fill it. Also, as Steve says, the slower growing varieties perform better in gallon pots.

Coleus, probably 'Kiwi Fern' with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.
Coleus, probably ‘Kiwi Fern’ with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.

Some of my favorite coleus varieties came out of the Florida Foundation Seed Producers, Inc., a non-profit corporation and direct support organization of the University of Florida. Are you confused yet? One of the hardest things for me when we attended CAST was understanding all of the various players, from the actual hybridizers to the brokers, to the wholesalers and finally the retailers. It was fascinating and overwhelming, but I’m so glad I went.

One of my containers on the deck with 'Henna' coleus, 'Princess Caroline' grass and some trailing plants. Crazy 'bout coleus
One of my containers on the deck with ‘Henna’ coleus, ‘Princess Caroline’ grass and some trailing plants.

I often use coleus in my containers along with purple fountain grass because they hold up so well to the sun. Note, I water with drip irrigation each morning set to a timer that goes off at 6:00 a.m. long before the other irrigation systems start. That way, we don’t overtax our well.

Variegated banana tree and coleus. Red Dirt Ramblings
Variegated banana tree and coleus. I don’t remember the varieties for sure.

When I can find it, I adore ColorBlaze® Dipt in Wine from Proven Winners. It has the most beautiful coloration and is very strong. On the other end of the spectrum are the duckfoot type coleus. They tend to be more delicate, but they also have such an interesting shape. I put these where they get some shade from larger plants, or I place them on the east side of my house beneath my statue of Mary and shaded by my ‘Graham Thomas’ rose.

ColorBlaze® Dipt in Wine photo courtesy of Proven Winners, LLC.
ColorBlaze® Dipt in Wine coleus. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners, LLC.

Basically, if a coleus you pick looks delicate and trailing, it may be just that in a hot summer climate. Give it a little shade and start a few cuttings somewhere else. Give it a year, and you can see how it performs in various locations. Now, I’m not telling you to take cuttings of trademarked plants because that would be wrong of me, but if a piece broke off, you wouldn’t want it to die would you?

Coleus 'Bonefish' with 'The Line' coleus and 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine.
Under the Sea ® ‘Bonefish’ and ‘The Line’ coleus with ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine frame Mary in this view.

Right about the time the daylilies finish blooming, the coleus and Rudbeckia in various colors and forms take over. It’s a good time to be in the garden then too. What sun tolerant coleus make your garden grand each year?

 

 

Tropical plants, a hot summer garden’s best friend

Salvia elegens 'Golden Delicious' pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. #nofilter

Next to colorful annuals, tropical plants are a hot summer garden’s best friend. In Oklahoma and much of the middle South, tropical plants are grown successfully as annuals. Yes, in a mid-south climate, they die at winter’s end, but that’s okay. If you take cuttings, you can keep your favorites going year after year. Many of my best plant combos and those in other gardens I’ve seen involve tropicals in some fashion.

A tropical, native plant paradise of variegated tapioca, Salvia greggii 'Pink Preference' and Melinis nerviglumis 'Pink Crystals' or 'Savannah' depending upon where it's purchased.
A tropical, native plant paradise of variegated tapioca, Salvia greggii ‘Pink Preference’ and Melinis nerviglumis ‘Pink Crystals’ or ‘Savannah’ depending upon where it’s purchased.

What price are you willing to play for beauty all summer even when the weather is scorching hot? My garden would be very boring without annuals and tropicals, and you know how much I hate a boring landscape.

In late summer of 2011, the only border that looked good that dreadful summer was the one by the garage planted with tropical plants. Here, variegated oyster plant, 'Peter's Wonder' coleus, alternanthera and heliotrope make a very pretty picture.
In 2011, the only border that looked good that dreadful summer was the one by the garage planted with tropical plants. Here, variegated oyster plant, ‘Peter’s Wonder’ coleus, alternanthera and heliotrope make a very pretty picture.

I was shopping at a nursery last summer, and I had a big, blooming tropical plant in my basket, a Russelia equisetiformis, red firecracker plant. A woman came up to me and began exclaiming over its coral, tubular blooms. Who wouldn’t? It was a beauty. She wanted one, she said. I pointed to the table where they were. She then asked, “Is it perennial?”

Russelia equisetiformis, coral fountain, firecracker plant
Russelia equisetiformis, coral fountain, firecracker plant grows well in garden beds and in pots.

Instead of banging my head against my cart, I smiled and explained it was tropical. She brushed me away with her hand.

“I only buy perennials,” she said. Her garden. Her choice, but gee whiz, how boring.

If you ever see a plant blooming its heart out in a pot, it probably isn’t perennial unless it’s been brought to bloom in a greenhouse. I see perennials blooming out of season in nurseries quite often, and I wish there were signs telling the customers this. It would save a lot of disappointment later. Some perennials bloom all summer, but most have their special season each year even if you deadhead them.

I’m not anti-perennial. I’m just realistic.

In my garden, the story is rarely just about flowers. Coleus, probably 'Redhead', Acalypha wilkesiana - copperleaf plant and Miscanthus sinensis, maiden hair grass tell the story here.
In my garden, the story is rarely just about flowers. Coleus ‘Redhead’ and ‘Alabama Sunset’, Acalypha wilkesiana – copperleaf plant and Miscanthus sinensis, maiden hair grass tell the story here. Only the grass is perennial here.

You purchase tropicals for your patio containers all the time. Buy them for your garden beds too. Many have larger leaves to give them presence in the garden and break up what my friend, Fairegarden, calls “little leaf syndrome.” Or, their foliage is eye-catching because it is colorful. Just look at what breeders have been doing with coleus and elephant ears lately.

Plectranthus scutellarioides 'Indian Summer', coleus in my garden last summer.
Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘Indian Summer’, coleus in my garden last summer.

Others tropicals bloom when nothing else in the garden does much except survive. In the right place, a tropical plant can change your landscape the same way a scarf transforms the blank area around a person’s neck, suddenly making their outfit chic instead of so-so. Plus, scarves keep you warm in the depth of winter.

Coleus Bonefish with 'The Line' coleus and 'Marguerite' sweet potato vine.
‘Bonefish’ coleus, ‘The Line’ coleus and ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine frame Mary in this view.

Tropicals, with their hot colors, are also a warm presence in the garden. Some like tropical plumbago can also cool things down by reflecting the summer sky.

Below are some tropical plants I won’t do without in my garden. It’s not an exclusive list. There are so many more available. I profiled some of them in The Bold and the Beautiful. I take cuttings of my tropical plants because, as of 2013, I have a greenhouse. It is a tremendous luxury–I waited years to buy one–but if you have a sunny window, or full spectrum lights, and the desire to overwinter plants, you can take cuttings too. I did this for years. I also take in entire small plants for further propagation during the long winter months. That way, I create a small army for garden balance and flow. I could never buy all of these plants each spring. My garden is large, and repetition is an important design element.

Senorita Rosalita® cleome, spider flower. Senorita Blanca® is a much lighter pink version. It also grows shorter.
Senorita Rosalita® cleome, spider flower. Senorita Blanca® is a much lighter pink version. It also grows shorter.
  • Alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’ and so many of the other plants in this genus. Wonderful for color in the garden no matter how hot it gets in summer. A. dentata ‘Purple Knight’ is another great one, and it can be started from seed. A. dentata ‘Little Ruby’ is gorgeous. All three perform like champs in hot weather growing to their full size before season’s end.
  • Canna lilies. Many cannas overwinter in Oklahoma, but some, like the Tropicanna® series, are more tropical in nature. If you’re going to grow cannas, grow ones with interesting foliage.
  • Cleome Senorita Rosalita® Other varieties of cleome can be grown from seed. They are great too, but Senorita Rosalita® and Senorita Blanca® were created to have no viable seeds or spurs so they bloom continuously all summer and don’t snag you or your clothes as your work in the garden. Senorita Blanca® blooms a much lighter pink that is almost white and grows more compact.
  • Colocasia esculenta, elephant ears, are some of the most exciting plants for shade because, John J. Cho, Ph.D. a plant pathologist and breeder in Hawaii, spent much of his career working on color, size and form. These were introduced under the Royal Hawaiian Colocasias name. Because of his groundbreaking work, we now have beautiful elephant ears including patented plants: ‘Pineapple Princess‘, ‘Diamond Head‘, ‘Maui Gold‘ and ‘Kona Coffee‘. I would love to grow ‘Pineapple Princess’ and ‘Maui Gold.’ ‘White Lava‘ is interesting too. I’ve linked to Plant Delights Nursery which sells many of Cho’s plants. I grow ‘Black Coral’ which I bought at Bustani Plant Farm. Note that many of Cho’s selections can be grown in sun or partial sun in many climates.
'Maui Gold' elephant ear with red begonias at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens
‘Maui Gold’ elephant ear with red begonias at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens
  • Crossandra infundibuliformis ‘Orange Marmalade’, firecracker flower. I guess it does look like soft orange firecrackers at the top of short stems. Maybe, more like sparklers.
Crossandra nilotica is one plant I'll be adding to next year's repertoire. This is also from Bustani and blooming in full sun.
Orange crossandra at Bustani Plant Farm.
  • Cuphea llavea, bat-face cuphea, is one of the best plants in front of a container or at the edge of a planting bed. I really love the red one–so cute–but there’s also a double purple called Lanai Royal Purple, a double bi-colored one and another one called ‘Ballistic’ that I’ve grown. There are even more cupheas, but I like these best so far.
Cuphea lluvea, bat-face cuphea
Cuphea lluvea, bat-face cuphea
  • Duranta erecta. While duranta is a shrub or tree in tropical climates, in a colder climate, it makes a long-blooming and shorter plant. Some duranta have purple blooms. Others are grown for their foliage. ‘Sweet Memories’ has a purple and white bicolor bloom. I have one in a pot that trained as a standard.
'Haight 'Ashbury' hibiscus is a current favorite of mine. With pink or red flowers blooming in front of it, it's a show stopper.
‘Haight ‘Ashbury’ hibiscus is a current favorite of mine. With pink or red flowers blooming in front of it, it’s a show stopper.
  • Hibiscus acetosella ‘Haight Ashbury’. There are many other cultivars, but I think the variegation on this one’s leaves makes it interesting. I had to buy my plants in Texas. Why does Texas get more diverse plants than we do? ‘Mahogany’ can be grown from seed. I also grew ‘Maple Sugar’ in 2012 and 2013, but I no longer see it in the trade. Maybe they renamed it? I don’t know.
One more from Bustani Plant Farm.
Justicia betonica, white shrimp plant with ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus. Photo taken at Bustani Plant Farm.
  • Justicia betonica, white shrimp plant.
Lantana camara 'Dallas Red' next to 'Pink Crystals' fountain grass which bloomed earlier.
Lantana camara ‘Dallas Red’ next to ‘Pink Crystals’ fountain grass which bloomed earlier.
  • Lantana camara ‘Dallas Red.’ Are people tired of lantanas? The market was flooded with them a few years ago. Well, I’m one who still likes them in the right place. My potager (kitchen garden) is colored concrete bricks with brick pavers around a red fountain. All that hardscape, along with the asphalt drive next to it makes for one hot space around the fountain. I use a combination of plants to play off the red, and ‘Dallas Red’ is one of them. The plant list changes from year-to-year depending upon my mood. Lantana is a butterfly magnet.
This photo is from September of last year. I didn't grow variegated tapioca this year, and I missed its large presence in the garden. There really isn't anything quite like it.
This photo is from September of last year. I didn’t grow variegated tapioca this year, and I missed its large presence in the garden. There really isn’t anything quite like it. By the way, not to make you sad or anything, but both of those roses are gone now. I planted two Lagerstroemia ‘PIILAG-V’ Enduring Summer Red™ crapemyrtles instead.
  • Manihot esculenta ‘Variegata’, variegated tapioca, has all the best features in a tropical plant. I have to buy this one every year. It’s not cheap, but it’s hard to replicate so I understand. Nothing has the presence that this tropical does.
  • Musa sumatrana, red banana trees. M. sumatrana ‘Rojo’ is a pretty red and green one. Either dig them up and overwinter them in a cool, but not cold place, or grow them all winter in a greenhouse. Some bananas are considered sub-tropical, but I haven’t had any luck overwintering them outside. Too many cold days in an Oklahoma winter. Plant Delights has an interesting selection of ornamental banana trees. Believe it or not, I bought the one in the photo below at Home Depot.
Banana tree, coleus and sweet potato vine in a large container.
Banana tree, coleus and sweet potato vine in a large container.
  • Palm trees. I don’t know enough about palm trees to write intelligently of them. I just grow what I like. Here’s a good post on palms that perform well in Oklahoma, including our one native palm, Sabal minor. Alligator Alley is a local source for palms and other tropical plants that perform well in Oklahoma. They also carry reptiles if you’re so inclined. I am not.
Coleus, probably 'Kiwi Fern' with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.
Coleus, probably ‘Kiwi Fern’ with Tecoma hyb. Bells of Fire® esperanza.
  • Plectranthus scutellarioides. Coleus had another name change from Solenostemon scutellarioides. What would we do without these fantastic plants no matter what they’re called botanically?
  • Plumbago auriculata, blue or white, but why grow the white when there are so few easy blue flowers?
Pennisetum purpureum 'Princess Caroline' grass with Senorita Rosalita cleome.
Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ grass with Senorita Rosalita cleome.
  • Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ purple fountain grass, or one of the other varieties. It will grow from a plug to a giant mound in a few months. You don’t want it perennial, trust me. ‘Fireworks’ is smaller in stature and in leaf. ‘Princess Molly’ is green and purple and also quite large. ‘Prince’ is huge, and I’ve seen Vertigo® sold around town, but it’s a bit different because it is a millet. I can’t say how it performs.
Pennisetum 'Pince' with Saliva elegans, pineapple sage.
Pennisetum ‘Pince’ with Saliva elegans, pineapple sage.
  • Ricinus communis, castor bean. I like the red New Zealand type with its dark purple leaves. I grew it from seed last year.
New Zealand castor bean with Helianthus angustifolius, Narrow-leaf Sunflower
New Zealand castor bean with Helianthus angustifolius, Narrow-leaf Sunflower, a perennial.
  • Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious.’ If you can find this little jewel–I ordered mine online from somewhere–it is more striking than the standard pineapple sage shown above. I’ve grown it for two years. It makes a nice color echo with the fountain when it blooms in late summer, and the foliage is great throughout the growing season.
Salvia elegens 'Golden Delicious' pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. #nofilter
Salvia elegens ‘Golden Delicious’ pineapple sage in front of my red fountain. No filter, just backlit with beautiful October sunlight.
  • Tecoma stans and various hybrids, esperanza. There are now so many different types to grow other than the standard yellow bells. I like Crimson Flare®, Solar Flare® and Bells of Fire®. All of these grow to different heights and have various bloom shades. Do a little research if you plan to overwinter them. Once again, Texas has more of these for sale than anywhere else I’ve traveled, and you know how much I traveled this year.
  • Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, is perennial in a tropical climate, but here, it will die with the first frost. You can start it from seed, but indoors to get a running start. I bought my plant from Bustani Plant Farm.
No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.
No perfume like Vigna caracalla, corkscrew vine, a tropical grown as an annual here.

Tropical plants don’t ask for much. They appreciate an enriched soil, but will even grow in a lesser circumstances. The soil around the potager’s red fountain was just builder’s sand leftover from laying brick paths and building raised beds. I put compost in it every year since, but it’s still primarily sand, so when I plant, I place a little granular fertilizer in the bottom of each hole. This seems to get things off to a good start.

Goodness, there are so many more. I haven’t even mentioned Iresine herbstii, copperleaf plants, the bulbines or black-leaved skyflower, among othersbut this post is way too long anyway. Just do your garden a favor and add annual and tropical plants to your plan. Later, let me know what you planted and how things went. I’d love to hear about it. Oh, and feel free to Pin any of these images to Pinterest. I don’t mind. Also, share away on other social media if you want. The more we get out the word about garden worthy plants, the better. Have a great weekend!