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Linda Coyner's Garden Edition, Coleus, page 2

There are other changes, too. The hybrids offered a a wider variety of habit, leaf form, and size than yesterday’s coleus. You’ll find sturdy upright growers reaching 5 feet like ‘Atlas’ and ‘Florida Sunrise.’ A few are low growers, such as ‘Trailing Red’ and ‘Trailing Green.’ ‘Thumbellina’ mounds at less than a foot, and ‘Ducksfoot’ reaches about 18 inches. However, most cultivars can achieve a 2 foot height. Leaves, though usually spade shaped, come in all sizes. They can be narrow like ’The Line’ or broad like ‘Atlas,’ ‘Florida Sunshine Jade,’ ‘Japanese Giant, ‘or ‘Solar Sunrise.’ The name “Ducksfoot” describes the tiny, lobed leaves on several cultivars. Some leaf margins are scalloped like ‘Atlas’ or frilly like ‘Red Ruffles.’

I even came across a few varieties that break with the tradition of the unsightly flower spike. Glasshouse Works reports that ‘Japanese Giant’ sports a lovely violet-blue flower. ‘Trailing Red’ and ‘Trailing Green,’ which are ideal for hanging pots, bear blue orchid-like flowers continuously without elongating, according to Log House Plants (

As a result, gardeners now have more than 500 varieties of ornamental coleus from which to choose. That number is high as some are known to be duplicates—cultivars with different names in different regions. The name confusion that plagues the industry defeats the purpose of botanical names. Until the confusion is cleared up, a buyer’s best bet is to use plant appearance and habit as a guideline for finding a specific cultivar.

Many of today’s cultivars are “early” introductions that were marketed in series—like Solar or Sunlover; others, like Stained Glassworks represent a relatively new series. Some are what’s called “independents.” The major series include Ducksfoot, Solar, Stained Glassworks, and Sunlover.

The Ducksfoot Series has been around awhile. Its diminutive habit and leaf are undeniably charming. The leaves are small and flat with tiny lobes like a duck’s foot. The overall shape is a tidy and rounded mound with many branches. Ducksfoot includes such varieties as ‘Indian Frills,’ ‘Inky Fingers,’ ‘Purple,’ ‘Ducksfoot Red,’ and ‘Ducksfoot Yellow.‘

The Solar Series appeared in 1994 from Hatchett Creek Nursery in Gainesville, Florida ( These include ‘Solar Morning Mist,’ ‘Solar Eclipse,’ ‘Solar Flare,’ and ‘Solar Sunrise.’ This series offers rich blends of green, maroon, plum, yellow, and cream.

The Stained Glassworks Series was introduced by New Flower Fields. It includes such varieties as “Golden Bedder,’ ‘Molten Lava,’ and ‘South of the Border.’ The series also includes the unusual ‘Tilt a Whirl’ and ‘Kiwi Fern,’ both of which have scalloped circular leaves that clasp the stems.

The Sunlover Series dates back to 1993 and research done at USDA facilities in the sunbelt. Some were released through trials at the University of Georgia at Athens. That series includes foolproof varieties like ‘Red Ruffles,’ ‘Gay’s Delight,’ ’Rustic Orange,’ and ‘Thumbellina.’

Trails at the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, and Texas A&M have played a major role in demonstrating the toughness of the new hybrids and returning coleus to the front lines of gardening. Here are the highlights of those trails and research:

Harry P. Leu Gardens near Orlando conducted trials on 195 cultivars and species in 2000 and 2001. The best performers in five groups were selected. In the low-creeping group: ‘Black Sun,’ ‘Green and Gold,’ ‘Red Trailing Queen,’ S. pentheri, ‘Tell Tale Heart.’

In the small varieties group: ‘Charlie McCarthy,’ ‘Butter Cutter,’ ‘Camellia,’ ‘Dark Frills,’ ‘India Frills,’ ‘Thumbellina.’

In the medium varieties group (24-36 inches tall): ‘Brilliancy,’ ‘Grace Ann’ (one of the best in the trails), ‘Kiwi Frills,’ ‘Rosa,’ ‘Tilt A Whirl.’

In the tall group (36 inches plus): ‘Fack,’ ‘Hurricane Louise,’ ‘Inky Fingers,’ ‘Ruffles,’ ‘Super Ducksfoot,’ ‘Yada, Yada, Yada.’

In the Florida Series: ‘Altoona,’ ‘Astatula,’ ‘Okahumpka,’ ‘Punta Gorda,’ ‘Wauchula,’ ‘Yulee.’

The 2002 trails at Gainesville tested 23 cultivars and had them digitally photographed every two weeks through the season. Those images are posted at The final analysis hasn’t been posted yet but a handful look gorgeous even at week 29. They include ‘Alabama,’ ‘Hurricane Louise,’ ‘Plum Parfait,’ ‘Ox Blood,’ and ‘Sunset.’

The University of Florida West Florida Research and Education Center in Milton reported excellent results with tests of the Sunlover Series, especially ‘Alabama Sunset.’ WFREC cites the series’ exceptional performance in its trials. During the test, the plants did not need deadheading and continued to grow up to 5 to 6 feet.

Research at Lake Brantley Plant Corp. in Longwood, Florida, resulted in the Florida City Series, a handful of varieties designed to be Florida-friendly. Paul "P.J." Klinger Jr., the corporation's chief horticulturist, allowed 24 of the most common coleus to self-pollinate or be cross-pollinated by local bees. Seeds were collected and sown during January 2000. Out of 100,000 seedlings, about 800 were selected to plant outdoors in full sun for the remaining spring and summer.

By fall 2000, 36 passed the test—they were medium-sized, well-branched, colorful, and resistant to soil-borne diseases. They are now vegetatively propagated. The final selection carries the names of small Florida towns, hence the name of the series. Those ranked highest by a group at a Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association event include Altoona, Bonifay, Immokalee, Micanopy, Yalaha, and Yulee.

The 2002 Athens Georgia Classic City Awards singled out a new variety named 'Dipt in Wine' from EuroAmerican Propagators and Proven Selections. ‘Dipt in Wine’ thrives in the sun. Allan Armitage, Ph.D., a horticulture professor at UGA, reports that each plant produced “big beefy stems that did not snap even in strong winds and with the gentle caresses of unruly Bulldog Football fans.” Its bright green leaves look as though they were dipped in a burgundy wine. Light-colored veins and a bright gold base add stunning accents. In the trial, 'Dipt in Wine' produced few flowers, which made it nearly maintenance free. The plants grew 12 to 18 inches tall.

In trials at The University of Georgia a few years ago, 50 varieties were compared. The standouts were Alabama Sunset,' 'Ducksfoot,' 'Freckles,' ‘Pat Martin,' ‘Pineapple,' 'Red Ruffles,' 'Solar Flare,' 'Sunset,' and 'Thumbellina.’ 'Red Ruffles' received the Georgia Gold Award for its outstanding performance. 'Red Ruffles' tolerance of heat, humidity, drought, flooding rains, bugs and disease was superb.

The Coordinated Educational and Marketing Assistance Program at Texas A&M University conducted field trials for three years and evaluated over 70 cultivars. In the end, they narrowed it down to two SuperSun cultivars that are fully sun tolerant: 'Plum Parfait' and 'Burgundy Sun.'

'Plum Parfait' has a ruffled, lance-shaped leaf that is a purplish-plum color early in the growing season. As summer's heat begins to build, 'Plum Parfait' leaves develop bold pink margins. This cultivar is recommended for use where its pink highlights can be appreciate up close.

'Burgundy Sun' is characterized by large, oval to heart-shaped leaves that are a deep, rich burgundy in color. This cultivar has strong visual impact, especially at a distance, and makes a good accent focal point in the garden.

In order to make the final cut, ‘Plum Parfait' and 'Burgundy Sun' had to meet specific criteria: require very low maintenance for an annual bedding plant, be extremely easy to grow (almost foolproof when planted in a well-drained soil and not over watered), adapted well to all areas of Texas, perform well in dappled shade to full, hot sun, assume a pleasing, compact growth habit, not be plagued by early or excessive flowering, grow in almost any soil, acid, or alkaline (if it is well-drained), and provide color from mid spring well into the fall, have no serious insect or disease problems when grown outdoors in properly prepared beds or containers.

Both cultivars earned A&M’s "Earth-Kind" designation for their ability to deliver “superior landscape performance with an absolute minimum, or even total elimination, of harsh pesticides.” For recommendations outside those sunny climes, check to see if your state's cooperative extension service conducts field trials. Many experiment stations grow a variety of flowers, usually in partnership with university horticulturists, local growers, master gardeners, and garden clubs. The trial results are passed on to consumers and the industry.

If you get hooked on a named variety, you best bet it to order online. That’s where you’ll find the best selection. Garden centers carry only a few coleus plants, and it’s not always clear whether they’re hybrids (grown from cuttings) or simply seed varieties. One clue is that hybrids are more likely to be sold singly in 4-inch or quart pots while seed coleus usually shows up in inexpensive 4- or 6-packs.

For more information:
Coleus Finder,
Color Farms,
Crownsville Nursery,
Glasshouse Works,
Hatchett Creek Farms,
Singing Springs Nursery,

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