Is Coleus A Perennial Or Annual?

Written by Becky Mathews
Published: September 12, 2022
Image Credit Arina Trapeznikova/Shutterstock.com
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Are you looking for foliage plants with plenty of attitude? Look no further! Coleus is a multi-hued foliage plant that’s happy growing in a garden or indoors. It’s very popular with plant parents and sometimes called Painted Nettle, but is coleus a perennial or annual? The answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect!

Coleus: Perennial or Annual?

Red and green leaves of the coleus plant
Coleus is a tender perennial plant.

EQRoy/Shutterstock.com

Coleus is a tender perennial. This means they are perennial in their native habitat, which is tropical and subtropical. However, because they are not at all cold tolerant, coleus are usually grown as annuals.

They are hardy in USA zones 10-11 and on the south coast of Britain if frosts are mild, but in cold areas, they’re unlikely to make it through the winter.

What Does Perennial Mean?

Perennial plants live longer than two years. They may be deciduous, which means they lose their foliage, but the foliage will grow back the following year. Some perennials are evergreen in warm climates and will retain their leaves. The following spring, they grow bigger and re-flower. The word perennial comes from the Latin perennis (per-annum) for “lasting the year through.”

Coleus is naturally a perennial, not an annual, but because it’s killed early by cold weather people consider it annual.

And What Are Annuals?

Annual plants are different from perennials. They finish their lifecycle in one year, hence the name “annual.” They are usually more colorful than perennials and often used as bedding plants.

You may also have heard of biennials. Some folk think this means they flower twice a year, but it actually refers to their growing cycle. Bi means two and biennial plants live for two years.

In year one, they germinate and grow foliage. In year two, they flower and develop seeds before dying. Parsley is a good example of a biennial plant.

All About Coleus

Coleus is genus of plants native to Indonesia’s tropics and subtropics. The name is Greek koleos, which means sheath and refers to their stamens that are fused together like a shield.

There are more than 300 different coleus species and, on top of that, 1,500 cultivars range from one foot to three feet tall. Some are simple native plants, running right through to the brightest leafy cultivars. Although the different species can look very different, they usually have large fleshy roots and flowers that can’t match the colorful foliage.    

One of the most popular coleus is coleus scutellarioides with its extra flashy foliage. This coleus has brightly colored green, purple, and pink foliage, and although it’s commonly called Painted Nettle, it doesn’t sting. Its foliage sometimes has a jagged edge similar to nettles, and of course, “painted” refers to its spectacular paint job!

Since 1790, botanists have argued over the Coleus genus. Currently, coleus are part of the Ocimeae tribe and sub-tribe Plectranthinae. Hundreds of species are cataloged by Kew Gardens Plants of the World database.

Will Coleus Come Back Every Year?

Coleus is perennial not annual, so it will come back every year in tropical and subtropical areas. In US zones 10-11 it’s perennial, but coleus growing anywhere else isn’t likely to survive winter.

What To Do With Coleus In Winter

If you’re in a warm area, then coleus will continue to grow. Cutting back some old growth and keeping an eye on the temperature is important. If a chilly front is approaching, consider covering coleus with fleece or burying its roots in thick organic mulch.

Because it’s a tender perennial, coleus can be brought inside when the weather turns cold. Simply dig it up and replant it in a container, if you’re not already pot-growing. The warmth of a home is enough to keep coleus going in the winter. Don’t water it too much, just when the container of compost is dry a few inches down.

How To Grow Coleus

Coleusplant with green and purple leaves in front of a wood fence
Coleus plants can be planted to achieve a carpet-like effect outdoors.

mimohe/Shutterstock.com

Perennial coleus needs a sunny to a partially sunny spot and moist, well-drained soil. In sun, coleus will turn richer shades of intense color. In shade, it will struggle to produce its famous colorful foliage.

If you’re growing coleus annually, wait until all risk of frost has passed. There’s nothing more disappointing in the garden than discovering new tender plantlets have frozen to death overnight. May is the best time in the UK.  

If you’re moving coleus, it’s always a good idea to take a few cuttings, just in case it doesn’t make it. Coleus is very easy to grow from a cutting. Just snip a stem, about 2-3 inches long, above a pair of leaves and push it into a pot of gritty compost. Keep it damp but not soggy, and in a few weeks’ time, new growth will appear.

Here’s an interesting way to grow coleus—a coleus carpet! Coleus carpets were very popular in Victorian England. The plants were brought to England in the 1800s and were immediately loved for their bright colors. Victorian gardeners made tapestries of coleus that filled a flower border just like a carpet.

Is Coleus Poisonous?

Coleus is toxic and shouldn’t be eaten by humans, dogs, cats, and horses. It’s because coleus contains diterpene coleonol and coleon O compounds that are toxic.

It’s unlikely to be fatal, but if it’s ingested, it causes abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Its sap and leaves can cause irritation, too, so it’s best to use gloves when you’re handling coleus.

Can Coleus Be A Houseplant?

Red and green coleus plant in a brown plastic pot
Coleus is also known as the Painted Nettle Flower.

helgafo/Shutterstock.com

Absolutely, yes. Coleus is an excellent houseplant and very popular with Instagrammers and interior designers. Keep houseplant coleus looking good by pinching out the central stem. This creates side shoots and a healthier-looking bushy plant that’s perfect for selfies.

If you have house cats, just be aware that they may chew on coleus.

Coleus Is Perennial In Hot Zones

So now we know that tropical coleus is perennial not annual, but because they die off in cold weather, people think they’re annuals!

If you love coleus but live in a cold area, try growing them as houseplants. If you don’t want them indoors, the best and lowest cost way to grow is by cuttings. Fleshy plants like coleus are simple to grow from cuttings; it’s really worth a try. Even if they don’t take, you haven’t lost anything!

Why not take lots of cutting and create a Victorian England coleus carpet?

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About the Author

I’ve been a professional writer since 2014 with special interests in the environment, particularly endangered animal and plant species. I graduated from the University of Reading, UK with an MA in history and hold University of Oxford qualifications in archaeology. Outside of work, I rehabilitate wildlife, work in my allotment garden, and play the piano badly.

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Sources
  1. Royal Botanical Gardens KEW, Available here: https://powo.science.kew.org/results?q=coleus
  2. Gardeners' World Magazine/BBC Gardeners' World Magazine, Available here: https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-grow-solenostemon-coleus/
  3. USDA, Available here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/