Colourful coleus: new varieties to grow

Coleus is long-lasting as a cut flower, and often strikes roots in the vase water before your arrangement dies.
SALLY TAGG

Coleus is long-lasting as a cut flower, and often strikes roots in the vase water before your arrangement dies.

OPINION: Coleus is cool again! Says who? Says me! Okay, I'm fibbing a little. This funky foliage plant has never been cool, in any sense of the word, for not only does this subtropical bedder like it hot (it's a popular houseplant in frosty climates), it has long been considered a barometer of bad taste landscaping. Don't believe me? Google "coleus is cool" and you'll only get three results – and none are particularly effusive in their praise, whereas I can't stop raving about the new Dutch-bred Main Street hybrid coleus collection. 

Every trend needs a trendsetter, so I've decided to make the fashion status of coleus my 2017 cause célèbre. I'll tell anyone who will listen that this is the plant for horticultural hipsters. (If cheese-cutter hats, beards and Roman sandals can make a fashion comeback, there's surely hope for coleus, iresine, marigolds, nandina, Chinese toons and golden conifers, too.)

I'm doing my bit to raise its profile. I've already complimented coleus – twice – in NZ Gardener this year as well as defending its reputation from Facebook naysayers who still consider it naff (Abbie Jury, I'm talking about you). 

Gardening guru, Lynda Hallinan.
SALLY TAGG

Gardening guru, Lynda Hallinan.

And, for the record, I'm taking no notice of the paper-shuffling botanists who have shown this flashy plant such little respect that they've officially junked coleus as a genus, reclassifying the entire colourful clan as Plectranthus scutellarioides.

What's not to like about coleus? It's drought-tolerant. It's long lasting for floral work. It takes full sun and full shade. You can grow it indoors or out. It's bold in pots. You can't kill it with neglect, not even if you buy a plant and pop it under your potting table to plant later that day, then accidentally forget about it for six weeks. Sadly it's an annual in most regions, as the first sniff of frost knocks it down, so take cuttings to overwinter indoors. 

Coleus is as colourful as a cartoon rainbow and I suspect that its dazzling, Frankensteinian foliage combinations are the main reason it's frowned upon by discerning gardeners. The Main Street hybrids range from 'Broad Street', in deep merlot with lime embroidery on its leaf edges, to fluoro pink, purple and gold 'Fifth Avenue' and 'Rodeo Drive', an acid green form with squid-ink purple ruffles. 

Last summer, I also planted half a dozen orange 'Wall Street' coleus at our farm gate. The rusty colour is incredible, as are its girly knickers: the undersides of the leaves are a bright fuchsia-pink.

How do I know that coleus is cool? "They've sold exceptionally well this season," confirms grower Andrew Tayler, who admits even he is surprised how quickly Kiwi gardeners have taken a liking to them. Look for Main Street coleus at garden centres or hardware stores. 

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 - NZ Gardener

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