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Coleus, an Indispensable Annual for Nineteenth Century Gardens

The Coleus, in Burpee’s 1893 catalog, remained a popular plant for beds and containers during America’s Victorian period.

You already know that the leaves of the coleus give color and form to any bed or container.  But did you know that the coleus was popular in nineteenth century gardens both in England and America?

According to Allison Kyle Leopold’s The Victorian Garden, the coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century. Nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s magazine  Gardener’s Monthly said in 1861: “Coleus Blumei mixed or edged with Perilla Nankinensis will make a fine bed, the latter if used for edging should be frequently stopped or pegged down, and not allowed to bloom.”

Eventually more coleus varieties appeared in the garden catalogs.

The James Vick Seed Catalog of the 1870s does not list the coleus among the plant offerings, but in the company magazine of  1887, after the elder Vick’s death, a column appears about how to propagate the coleus.  The writer said, “My practice is to grow fine healthy plants this summer, and in August or September, before frost, take cuttings for my winter stock.”

The Dingee and Conard catalog of 1892 offered a series of coleus plants called Success Coleus. “Everybody admires gorgeous summer bedding coleus, and every flower grower wants a bed, border, or edging of them.  In fact, they are indispensable for bright bedding effects.  We offer for the first time a special selection of coleus seed that will produce vigorous and fine plants, showing the most perfect markings and colors, in a short season.”

Leopold writes that two major gardening themes, beds and borders, defined the form and shape of Victorian gardens. The Coleus had no small role among the plant choices that both English and American gardeners used.

What is it that you like about this plant? Why must you have the coleus in your garden, or your containers?  How did the coleus grow for you this summer?


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