When it comes to fool-proof plants, coleus is a prime choice. Ideal for sun or shade, in the landscape or in containers, coleus, which was renamed plectranthus two years ago, is one of the most versatile plants.
“For growers, coleus grow fast and have few complexities in production,” says Jim Kennedy, sales manager for Ball FloraPlant. “For retailers, they are a great accent plant that can be sold as a stand-alone or as part of a combo. Consumers love the low-maintenance and versatile application in the garden.”
Breeding efforts have advanced coleus greatly in recent years, providing varieties that are drought and heat tolerant, mildew resistant and late-flowering and last all season long. Plus, breeders are discovering new colors and forms, as well as experimenting with new uses for coleus.
“In our program, we aim to produce a hassle-proof plant — one anyone can grow, from the grower all the way to the consumer,” says David Clark, professor in the environmental horticulture department at the University of Florida (UF). “In the end, our varieties are so tough that you essentially stick it in the ground and water it when you can, and they last all season, anywhere in the country.”
New Genetics Provide Bright Colors, Branching And More
Coleus is inspiring a fresh generation of scientists at university programs dedicated to providing new genetics for the commercial industry. At UF, Clark heads up the Coleus Breeding Program, part of the UF Plant Innovation Program, which has between 400 and 600 students enrolled. The coleus program has licensed out more than two dozen varieties since 2006, including a number of very popular coleus to Proven Winners, Ball Horticultural Co. and other companies, and the program continues to grow as a result.
“We’re not a business; we’re a university, but it’s good to be able to provide the industry with a source of genetics,” Clark says. “Over time, varieties are getting better and better. We have good students working on breeding new coleus, and the university values the program because it’s growing.”
Popular varieties from the UF program include the following from Proven Winners:
• ‘Splish Splash’
• ‘Pineapple Splash’
• ‘Big Red Judy’
• ‘Alligator Tears’
• ‘ColorBlaze Keystone Kopper’
• ‘ColorBlaze Marooned’
Ball Horticultural Co. has licensed:
• ‘Electric Lime’
• ‘Trusty Rusty’
“I can’t emphasize enough how good the industry has been — everyone has played really fair, and it’s truly a model for how universities and the industry can work together. Companies pay royalties for the varieties they license, and all of the money goes back to the lab to pay for the next generation of breeders. It’s good to keep the science going.”
With Florida’s long growing season not seeing frost sometimes until December, the program has been successful in selecting tough varieties that can withstand the area’s intense heat and humidity and thrive in full sun or shade, Clark says. All coleus varieties are trialed in both 50 percent shade and intense sun and heat, and the program selects for bright color, compact branching and late flowering in both locations.
“One set of plants we put in a pickup truck, went 70 mph down the highway to the location and put them in the field under aluminum foil. Either they die, struggle or grow, and if they grow, they’re really tough,” Clark laughs. “This year we started with 50,000 seedlings, and we’ll get down to 600 to 800 varieties that companies can select from, trial and license. Everyone knows who is working with us, and if there is overlap, we’ll let them know.”
Canadian Coleus Funds Student Scholarship
Hort Couture exclusively licenses its Under The Sea coleus varieties from the breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan and is seeking plant patents for the series.
“Our Under The Sea series has been one of the best advancements in coleus in the last few years,” says Jennifer Hatalski, social media specialist with Hort Couture. “We keep pumping up the spirits of these students in Saskatchewan, and they are just so excited. All of the royalties from the patent goes back to the university for its horticulture student scholarship fund. There is never a time when we aren’t looking at new coleus from them. We feel that we have formed this great partnership — their amazing breeding efforts and our creative marketing is the perfect match — and the varieties are only available at independent garden centers. Who knows what the next series will be after Under The Sea.”
Coleus Possibilities Include New Shapes, Colors And Combinations
Coleus seems to be a genus that is full of possibilities, with many new varieties on the horizon. Hatalski says in addition to its Under The Sea and Signature series, Hort Couture is continuously looking at new coleus varieties with different leaflets, as well as more varieties that look like coral, have unique colors and grow different sizes.
“When we narrow down the funnel of all of our coleus selections, we ask these four questions: is it unique, sophisticated, fashionable and easy to grow? If it passes our genetic evaluation and trialing requirements, and we answer yes to those questions, it is a must-have for the Hort Couture program and the independent garden center market,” Hatalski says.
The University of Florida program has brought no-pinch, compact varieties to the industry, and continues to screen for new characteristics such as new colors, patterns and growth habits such as mounding or groundcover, Clark says.
“We’re very close to releasing a series that looks good in a 4- to 6-inch pot, but when it goes to the consumer it reaches 18 inches tall and 5 to 6 feet wide in the shade,” Clark says. “In places like the South, it’s going to be important because it’s tough to get good color in the shade that’s also drought and heat tolerant.”
Ball Horticultural Co. continues to select new seed and vegetative coleus varieties. In the vegetative category, Ball FloraPlant is looking for excellent landscape performance and non-flowering varieties like ‘Wasabi’ and ‘Henna.’ Two new premium varieties for 2013 are ‘Honey Crisp’ and ‘Vino.’
PanAmerican Seed is working on multi-pellet mixes, like Fuseables, featuring coleus combinations. New for 2013 is Fuseables Chocolate Symphony, a blend of ‘Chocolate Mint’ and ‘Versa Lime.’
“In vegetative varieties, Ball FloraPlant selects for exceptional tolerance to a wide range of environmental conditions and disease pressure, especially looking for tolerance of downy mildew,” Kennedy says. “Fuseables is a great opportunity for the coleus class, because the combos are interesting, compatible in vigor and appealing with complementary colors.”
Mix Poinsettias And Coleus To Pique Consumer Interest
For growers in search of unique ideas to present coleus varieties, Hatalski says that while coleus has so many possibilities because it can be pinched and shaped in so many different ways, the Hort Couture clamshell container has been “all the reage” since it was unveiled at Spring Trials last year.
“Our Under The Sea coleus sells itself as soon as people see a leaf and how it
resembles a fish or coral, but once it’s put in our Hort Couture clamshell, that really seals the deal for the consumer,” she says.
Kennedy says coleus is a clear winner for season-extending combinations.
“Try coleus for fall combos and decorating,” he says. “Ball FloraPlant offers a
variety called ‘Indian Summer.’ It has perfect fall hues and will grow well in the heat of late summer.”
Athena Brazil’s Paul Gaydos says growers should take advantage of the unique trailing coleus varieties for hanging baskets and combination pots.
“Save money and stick with one of the 85-plus generic or low-royalty varieties
offered by Athena Brazil,” Gaydos suggests. “We are making crosses for basal branching, no flowering and mildew resistance, and our varieties are strong performers.”
Poinsettias can be jazzed up with coleus for premium pot plant sales this winter, suggests Clark. As a site for the national poinsettia trials, UF had more than 700 people come through and rate the poinsettia and coleus combinations, which generated a huge buzz.
Clark and his students are also looking into how coleus can be used as interiorscape plants for shopping malls and office buildings.
“There are some colors and shapes of coleus that are really easy to mix with poinsettias, especially pink and white poinsettia varieties,” Clark says. “Coleus are so versatile that it doesn’t matter what kind of light regime you grow them under, and they don’t require pinching or growth regulators. Instead of potting them up in August, you can assemble coleus and poinsettia combinations later, and the coleus will grow up and around the poinsettia, hiding any production mistakes.”