Every year, The National Garden Bureau, the non-profit organization that promotes gardening on behalf of the horticulture industry, selects one annual, one perennial and one edible to recognize. Those chosen for “The Year of the …” program are easy to grow and genetically diverse with many new varieties.
Chosen as the “annual” for the Bureau’s 2015 program, coleus is a durable plant with very significant gardening potential for a wide range of gardeners and their garden situations. In future postings, both the perennial and the edible chosen for 2015 (gaillardia and sweet pepper respectively), will be featured.
Coleus has a long history of use in our gardens as a foliage plant and has gone through various phases of popularity over the past couple of centuries. The relative ease of establishment after planting, combined with a wide range of selections, has made coleus indispensable in the garden and popular in containers as well.
Coleus is thought to originate in Southeast Asia. While there is some debate as to when it arrived in Europe, Dutch botanist, Karl Ludwig Blume, is credited with naming and introducing the plant in mid 19th century England.
This member of the mint family, with the traditional square stems and opposite leaves, comes in a wide range of foliage coloration, leaf texture and plant form. Considered an herbaceous perennial in its native range, coleus are used primarily as annuals by a wide range of the gardening public.
Victorian gardeners utilized coleus in vivid bedding designs, also called “carpet gardening.” These elaborate patterns were frequently designed to be viewed from above and coleus were a common component in these planting schemes.
New introductions generated excitement during this period of history and “coleus fever” was rampant for a time. Because coleus mutate frequently, sports and reversions were not uncommon and could result in a new variety of interest.
Coleus popularity seemed to dwindle in the early 20th century and didn’t see much of a resurgence of use until the mid 20th century when uniform, seed grown varieties became more popular and coleus also found some popularity as a houseplant.
In the 1980s, as more gardeners realized the full potential of this spectacular plant, the coleus boom was reinitiated and the past two decades have seen an amazing number of introductions in both seed and vegetative offerings.
Many of the best selections have been preserved by coleus collectors and enthusiasts over the years but there is no shortage of new varieties being selected and promoted each year.
While modern coleus breeding still focuses on new selections for the home gardener featuring new color combinations and foliage characteristics, other features of consideration have become more prominent. There is certainly a focus on breeding and trialing for more sun tolerance which will expand the use of coleus to the brighter portions of our gardens.
For complete information about coleus basics including current breeding efforts, variability in patterns, textures and forms, propagating from seeds or stem cuttings, etc., be sure to visit the National Garden Bureau website at www.ngb.org.