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The Coleus Arrived in America during the mid Nineteenth Century

One of my favorite plants has to be the coleus. I cannot think of my garden without it.

The coleus has been part of the American garden since the Victorian period.

Allison Kyle Leopold writes in her book The Victorian Garden, “Coleus, native to Africa, was introduced to the United States during the second half of the 19th century.”

The American Agriculturist of 1880 wrote, “Plants with bright-colored variegated foliage are of special value in this country, where our hot summers prevent us from doing much in the way of producing bedding effects with flowers. The intense heat that causes such a rapid development and short duration of flowers is, as a general thing, favorable to the growth and coloring of the leaves of the so called ‘foliage plants’. Among these plants the coleus stands at the head.”

Of course the nineteeth cenutry seed companies and nurseries sold the coleus to their customers.

The Dingee and Conard Seed Company 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.”

The W. Atlee Burpee catalog of 1893 included this unforgettable chromolithograph based on several coleus plants. Notice the brilliant colors in the catalog’s illustration.  [Below]

Burpee catalog of 1893
The Philadelphia seed company W. Atlee Burpee featured the coleus here in its catalog of 1893.

According to the online coleus nursery Rosy Dawn Gardens,  “Coleus found their way into Europe and later, America, by way of traders and botanists…Plant aficionados seized upon Coleus as the new ‘it’ plant, and a sort of Coleus Fever swept through Victorian gardens, reminiscent of the Tulip Fever of the Netherlands in the 17th century.”

It was probably because the plant was so important to Victorian gardens that the coleus made its way to America from England in the late 1800s.

Today there are dozens of coleus on the market which help maintain its status as an essential ornamental plant for the American summer garden.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Another of the fascinating plants introduced into our gardens at a relatively late date. The Rosy Dawn gardens website history was very interesting. Thanks for the info! -Beth

    1. Beth, the Coleus is an important plant for a border I include in my garden summer: short dahlias like ‘Bishop of Landraf’ with a row of coleus in front. It is now at any early stage of growth, but by mid July I should have flowers and a taller coleus.

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