The Coleus blumei hybrids, the Painted Nettles or going by their uncommonLatin name, Plectranthus scutellarioides, are traditionally grown as outdoor bedding plants treated as annuals. This means they're planted outside in late Spring and provide garden interest during the Summer and Autumn season before things get colder and they die off. So can Coleus really be grown indoors as a houseplant? Absolutely, as long as you can provide good strong light and are prepared to spend five minutes every few weeks pruning and pinching out any flowers that appear then you'll have a brilliant houseplant.
The attraction and main selling point for these plants, if you haven't already worked it out, is the exquisite vividly colored and beautiful leaves, some marked with almost contrasting psychedelic patterns. The cultivars are varied, numerous and more are created every year, therefore Coleus is probably the only true rival to the outstanding elegance and desirability of the Calathea and Maranta foliage. They also tend to be very cheap to purchase due to easy propagation and quick growth, however despite this you may still struggle to find this plant in the usual haunts. Primarily because it's typically classed as an outdoor bedding plant and has an old fashioned stigma that has been difficult to shrug off. Searching in garden centre's in the bedding plant sections may yield better results (here are some other places you might be able to buy them ).
Grown indoors you do need to spend a little time maintaining a Coleus and this is really the only negative point for these plants. Because it grows quite fast the plant gets leggy and sparse looking quickly so you need to pinch out growth tips every now and again to encourage it to stay compact and bushy. Additionally you must pinch out any flowers that start to form, they aren't overly attractive anyway but if you allow them to fully bloom and set seed the entire plant will normally die afterwards.
Coleus plants need an excellent light source to retain the markings and because the leaf markings are the sole point to this attractive plant, it's essential that you get the light requirements correct. Sitting directly in a North, East or West facing window will be perfect, you may get away with a South facing window if the sunlight is filtered.
For perfect results chose a bright light spot which is warmed by the sun. Then water frequently.
We'll pretend you've followed our instructions above and chosen a bright spot which will therefore be warmed naturally by the sun. Such a placement will require you to keep the soil moist at all times, potentially meaning you'll be pulling out your watering can once or twice a week. Reduce watering in Winter and allow the soil to dry out a little.
If you've ignored our light recommendation and chosen somewhere darker you'll still need to keep things moist, but achieving this will require you to water much less frequently to prevent things becoming too wet.
Misting the leaves frequently is an ideal way to increase humidity around your Coleus and to keep the leaves looking wonderfully clean. That said, humidity in general is not often a big concern when it comes to these houseplants, so if you're not a "mister" don't fret about it.
There is no need to feed these plants on a regular or heavy basis because Coleus tends not to be a flowering houseplant, nor do you want it to grow to large proportions. Using a standard fertilizer feed twice a year (once in Spring, once in Summer) is usually enough.
Provide average warmth no cooler than 10°C / 50°F, otherwise you will risk your Coleus dying off.
If you plan to keep the plant alive over Winter, in the following Spring prune everything back quite sharply and repot using fresh standard potting soil. You can keep the previous pot because a size upgrade is not normally needed unless you want to increases its overall size.
As the cultivars are so distinctive and varied it may be hard to replace your previous plant with an exact copy if you lose it, alternatively your family or friends might take a fancy to the pattern and style on yours and want a cutting or you might just want more around your home. Fortunately for you, Coleus is really easy to propagate.
Basically all you need to do is cut off one of the stems, to create a Coleus cutting then dip it in a rooting hormone before pushing gently into potting soil, keeping it moist and in a warm spot until rooting has taken place. This takes a few weeks and the tell tale sign a cutting has "taken" is when you notice new leaves forming.
If you want a visual guide to this propagation method check out the YouTube video below which is pretty good (personally though we would take off a few of the leaves to give the cuttings a greater chance of surviving. This is because there are no roots to support all of those leaves she has left in place which places the cutting under a lot of stress).
Speed of Growth
The growth rate is often quite fast in ideal conditions so you must prune regularly to keep it compact and neat.
Height / Spread
Unchecked, the stems can grow to 1ft - 2ft / 30cm - 60cm. This may be what you are looking for, but it can be kept shorter by pinching out the growing tips on a frequent basis.
Rather modest in appearance and certainly not capable of competing with the foliage the flowers are very similar to those found on stinging nettles, because, well they're related! Coleus plants will often die if you allow the flowers to set seed. With this in mind it's normally best to remove any flower buds when they appear.
Is Coleus Poisonous?
A lot of the hybrids are okay to have around both people and pets, however some varieties still have more of the "natural" qualities from the older plants. These tend to have higher levels of essential oils within the leaves, which when consumed in large quantities can cause vomiting and diarrhea.
If you can't be bothered with the maintenance required you can just allow the plant to grow naturally and flower, but then in Winter take cuttings from your dying plant to propagate new ones ready for the following Spring.
Several things can cause the leaves on the Coleus to drop off suddenly. This is normally a result of not watering enough, cool draughts or cold temperatures in general.
Moist soil is essential for a healthy Coleus, but this is not the same as wet soil which will encourage the roots and stems to rot. You mustn't drown your plant and for many newbies this is too easy to do and is therefore the number one reason house plants die. The best thing here is to wait until the top of the soil becomes dry and then water well, ensuring no water remains in the drip tray after half an hour or so has past.
This is normally a combination of too little light and poor maintenance. You must provide good light and pinch out new growth tips every month to create a compact and bushy looking plant. If it's too late, then cut the plant back hard to encourage new growth.
All the usual pests that afflict houseplants may decide to set up home on your Coleus, if this happens identify what pest has arrived and treat accordingly.
Leaves turning yellow
Old leaves will yellow and drop off over time, normally replaced by bigger ones. If lots of leaves are going yellow at once and the plant looks very sickly then you may have been watering too much. Often if this stage is reached it's too late to save the plant as the damage has already been done. If any part of the plant looks okay create Coleus cuttings for a propagation attempt.
(Article / Gallery) Photo credit of the Coleus in the window to Carlos Gustavo Gonzalez
(Article / Gallery) Photo credit of the Coleus in flower to 4028mdk09
(Gallery) Photo credit of the ruffled Coleus to KENPEI
(Gallery) Photo credit Coleus Blumei Hybrid to Hedwig Storch
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