Friday, May 11, 2012

Coleus (The Poor Man’s Croton)

Years ago, way before I’d ever personally seen any of these plants, I read about them in one of my favourite books (The Houseplant Expert) where the author (Dr. D.G. Hessayon) writes that “Coleus is sometimes called the poor man’s Croton”. He goes on to state that Coleus is sometimes referred to in that manner “because it matches and even surpasses its stately rival in the brightness and colour range of its foliage, and it does this at a fraction of the cost”. Considering that the photos in the book are not that interesting and really don’t do these plants any justice, I did not agree with the writer - until I finally ran across some Coleus at a local greenhouse.

Coleus boasts vibrantly-coloured, variegated leaves available in a wide range of colours (green, pink, red, purple, yellow, cream) and leaf forms (oval, crinkled, ruffled). The plants are quite versatile and can be grown any which way you want. You can treat them as tender annuals (very common in my neck of the woods) and simply discard them when summer comes to an end. You can grow them outdoors when the weather is warm and then move them inside when the temperatures start to drop in the fall. Or you can simply treat them as houseplants year round. In addition to their versatility, they are much easier to grow than the fussy and demanding Coleus, they don’t cost as much and they grow fairly quickly.

There are so many different plants in this group and so many different names given by different greenhouses for the same plants that it’s difficult to distinguish between them. In addition, in older sources of plant information, you may find the botanical name listed as Coleus Blumei, but in more recent books and online sites, the plants are referred to as Solenostemon Scutellarioides. So I’m not going to make a list of plants or get too specific with naming conventions. To simplify this article (and to keep it at a reasonable length), I’m just going to use the term Coleus all the way through.

That’s that, so we’ll move along.

Caring For Coleus As A Houseplant

Coleus is grown for its colourful, stunning foliage but it requires ideal conditions to maintain that charming look. It’s best to heed this advice because a poorly grown Coleus is very unattractive. You can grow any one of these plants indoors as long as you are able to provide enough light and adequate humidity.

Plenty of light is needed – including some direct sun - for the leaves to retain their impressive colours and for the plant to retain its compact, bushy form. Choose a location that offers bright, filtered light; protect against the summer’s hot midday sun, which can fade the leaves. Coleus will flourish in the full morning sun of an eastern windowsill, the indirect sun of a southern location or the late afternoon sun of a western spot. When given proper amounts of light, the foliage will remain colourful.

Use a well-draining, porous soil and water plentifully during the spring and summer seasons whenever the surface of the soil feels dry. The plant should be kept evenly moist at all times; it will drop leaves if the medium dries out. Check on your plant daily if it’s growing in a warm, sunny room. During the winter, when the plant is resting, keep it barely moist but don’t allow it to dry out completely. You can convert your plant easily to the hydroculture system; just rinse the roots free of soil and pot them up in clay pellets. You can also take cuttings, root them in water and start new plants, which is also a very quick and effective method. And your options don’t end there; Coleus is so flexible that you can grow this plant immersed in water permanently once new roots form; make sure to change the water regularly to provide the root system with adequate air.

High levels of humidity are just as essential as high levels of light to keep this plant in good shape. If your home does not offer enough humidity naturally, remedy the situation by adding a humidifier nearby, by placing the plant on a pebble tray filled with water, by double-potting and filling the spaces in between the containers with moist peat, by grouping plants together to form a microclimate with higher humidity, by growing the plant in a room naturally higher in humidity (bathroom) or by growing it in a greenhouse (if you are fortunate enough to have one).

Average household temperatures are fine. Many resources recommend that you do not expose this plant to temperatures below 10°C (50°F), but I suggest that you do not expose a Coleus to temperatures below 15°C (59°F). You can grow Coleus outside during the warmer months after the danger of frost in your region has passed. These plants are very cold sensitive and temperatures, day and night, should not be below 15°C / 59°F if you decide to move them outside. In addition, the transition to the great outdoors should be done gradually for greater success.

If you are growing your plant in soil, the care conditions are ideal and your plant is growing vigorously, feed it every two weeks from March to September with a fertilizer for foliage plants measured at half strength. If you are practicing the hydroculture style, use a fertilizer specific to that, follow the manufacturer’s directions and feed in spring and summer; reduce the amount to 1/2 or 1/3 strength if the plant is growing slowly. If you use a product that is not specific to hydroculture, reduce the amount to 1/10th and feed about once a month. If you are growing your plants directly in water, I would recommend that you feed them with a very mild solution as well; 1/10th recommended dose of liquid fertilizer 3 or 4 times during the active growing season should be fine. No matter what growing method you are using, if your plant is not growing at all or it is not healthy, eliminate feeding entirely until the situation is remedied. Do not feed during the winter when the plant is resting. Also, bear in mind that the above recommendations on feeding are very general. When and how much to feed is dependent on many factors; adjust the amounts according to the vitality of your plant and its feeding requirements.

Although Coleus is a rival to the aristocratic Croton in many ways, it falls short in others. For example, its splendor is short-lived and plants need to be replaced regularly by new ones if you want to continue to grow a particular specimen. Even though a Coleus declines as it ages, and its colours fade, it’s a fast-growing plant that roots easily, so new stock can be raised from cuttings indefinitely. Older specimens should be pinched and pruned to promote bushy, compact growth.


  1. I used to grow a lot of coleus as an annual in my flowerbeds. My favourite, which is difficult to find, is a lacy variety that is purple with a lace like edge around the leaf. Their brilliant foliage can add a nice contrast to the other flowers and greenery in the garden.

    1. I love them. I don't grow them indoors anymore, but I do enjoy them in the garden. They are especially handy in shady spots. And there are so many to choose from that it's difficult to settle on just one or two!

  2. yes its true they r poor mans croton

  3. even i have 7 variety of coleus they look like aawesome