Coleus makes a come­back

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Next week: All about figs

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

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