Coleus makes a comeback
TWENTY years ago, summer bedding seemed finished. It was declared bad practice by preachers of sustainability, tasteless and a waste of perennial planting space by more serious gardeners and, in the wake of budget cuts that would only worsen, unaffordable by many of the parks departments that had long been the art’s main proponents.
Conditions were perfect for a populist backlash and one came: a resurgence of interest in bedding that continues to grow apace. In the vanguard were campaigns such as Britain in Bloom and gardens such as Waddesdon Manor, where the schemes soon came to surpass even their latevictorian predecessors.
Plant breeding has kept pace with this revival, with scores of cultivars being launched each year. Some are so gentle in colour and delectable in scent as to rival the most bon ton perennials: think of Dichondra
argentea and of recent innovations in Argyranthemum,
Nemesia and Glandularia (trailing verbena). As a result, bedding has made converts among gardeners of the kind who would once have dismissed it as gaudy.
A large part of the art’s charm for me has always been the holiday that it affords from conventional good taste. Others, it seems, feel the same. Over 10 weeks last summer, RHS Wisley canvassed more than 1,600 visitors as to their favourites among a wide choice of summer bedders. By an impressive margin, the winner was Solenostemon scutellarioides Campfire.
Developed by the Ball Horticultural Company, it makes a dense rounded bush to about 3ft tall. It’s grown for its leaves, which outdid the flowers of petunias, cannas, zinnias and a wide field of other flamboyants in the Wisley contest. They are oval, and a warm shade of coppery orange with a mauve-purple flush along their veins and margins.
So outstanding is Campfire that it will be hard to place in the garden or, leastways, in mine, and that’s why I’ll grow it. The bedders that I love best are outrageously plumed birds of passage, incitements to switch, in spots or pots and for one season only, from harmonious Impressionism to in-your-face Fauvism.
I remember feeling dismay back in 1989 when taxonomists advised me that I’d have to adopt the name Solenostemon scutellarioides in the New RHS Dictionary. Not only was it unspeakably sibilant and sesquipedalian, but it seemed disruptive when, like everyone else, I’d always known it as Coleus blumei, a name first gazetted for gardeners in December 1853 by the great Sir William Jackson Hooker.
There, he related that this ‘extremely ornamental’ newcomer had been transported from Java via Belgium to Mr Low of the Clapton Nursery. He praised its leaves, and declared: ‘Nothing is more easily cultivated, and no stove should be without it.’
Over the following decades, this tropical Asian member of the mint family moved from the stove’s hothouse protection to conservatories and drawing rooms then to summer pots and bedding schemes outdoors. Although Hooker had admired its spikes of small, purple-blue and white flowers, it became customary to pinch them out so as to divert all energies to the foliage that was this species’ true glory.
Cultivars proliferated, their leaves variously broad, narrow, saw-toothed and ranging in colour from gold to purple-black, zoned, edged, veined and speckled with ivory, lime, maroon, copper, crimson and pink. No other foliage plant offered such an array of hues and patterns as the painted nettle, as Coleus (Solenostemon) was aptly pet-named. Massed with its different forms, a glasshouse bench or garden bed became a living carpet bazaar.
In apprentice days, I had to raise them under glass—new experiments from seed, old favourites from cuttings taken in spring from stock plants overwintered indoors. I learnt that pinching out to create shape was important, as were a rich loamy medium, such as John Innes No.3, and good light.
In this, I was tutored by Ron Gardner, a heroic horticulturist who’d been growing them for decades. Once, as we were at the potting bench, he remarked: ‘They’re old-fashioned things, Coleus. Not many people bother with them nowadays, but there’s nothing like them and you never know—tastes might change.’ How right he was.
‘Conditions were perfect for a populist backlash ’
Mark Griffiths is editor of the multi-volume New RHS Dictionary of Gardening
Coleus blumei, now known as Solenostemon scutellarioides