Monday, October 3, 2016

Celebrate coleus

Drawing of coleus leaf
In this transition from summer to fall, a rarely celebrated plant is having a bit of a heyday—the coleus or painted nettle.  I’ve been noticing multicolored coleus leaves popping up at the base of trees all around both the west and the east sides of New York City.  Once fall leaves emerge in their full magnificent palette, we may not notice the coleus and they will die away when the cold days arrive, but for now, they are a source of a great beauty—a huge range of brilliant colors and sizes from under an inch to some more than 6 inches in size, like the one that I drew.  There are more than 600 varieties of Solenostemon scutellarioides, formerly known as Coleus blumei and Coleus x hybridus.  These lovely plants are native to India, Thailand, and other areas of Asia and Africa.  Their shape and texture always reminded me of mint leaves and sure enough, I found they are from the same family: the Lamiaceae family that contains peppermint, salvia, lavender, thyme, basil, and oregano among others. 

For those of us who were not born with a green thumb, coleus are good to know about because they are easy to grow and to propagate.  They also reward you since if you water them when they get droopy and withered, they will spring back to life like a little smile when you water them.  If only it were so easy for all of us to accomplish this feat.  There is also a little trick to keeping them growing bushy and not spindly and that is to pinch off their flowers before they get growing.  By the way, they don’t do well in the winter, like a lot of us, so you need to bring them in if you want them to survive the cold weather.  The National Gardening Association has a great entry on the coleus plant: I was fascinated to read that “coleus are frequently used as `lab rat’ plants” and so are tested for everything from salt tolerance, water uptake, plant nutrition, leaf morphology, etc.  They are even testing them to see if “coleus cell cultures may be useful in production of a compound called rosmarinic acid which has anti-viral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.”  In India, the roots of coleus plants have been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat heart and lung diseases; in addition, the chemical Forskolin, found in the tuberous roots of some coleus varieties, may be used to help us burn fat, build bone mass, as well as support healthy testerone levels. No bad, right? So keeping all this in mind, I think it is time that we celebrate the colorful, easy-growing, and possibly medicinal coleus. 

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