Chris Eirschele is a freelance writer and author. Find Chris’ blog at, and her website at


‘Leave’ the Color
by Chris Eirschele - posted 10/31/17








The red veining of a prayer plant repeats the hot colors of the croton; the Chinese evergreen cools off the display.

It does not matter how you come to embrace growing plants inside. Indoor gardening, putting plants in containers rather than in the ground, is a unique style. The hobby consumes a plant lover’s life no matter how innocently the introduction came about.

We fast become unsatisfied with seas of green plants indoors, and we search for unconventional color combinations to spike our foliage color.

Finding houseplants that tout vivid hues is easier these days. Plant breeders have a reputation for busy imaginations; splashes of yellow, orange, purple, or red, and all manner of combined palettes have taken over the benches of garden sellers. The array of choices for indoor gardeners seems never ending.


Clockwise: Rex begonias offer more colors these days, but still not as many as coleus. Rex begonias add highly textured leaves to a houseplant collection. • The tropical wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida), a traditional houseplant, is as beautiful with its mix of purples and greens as it was many years ago; one pot can give a room that “wow” look. • I tried a coleus called Apple Brandy in a part-shade location outside. For the chartreuse color to seep deeper into its mature leaves, gardeners growing it inside will have to play with the light exposure.

Coleus Hybridizer Names a Few Must-Have ‘Hawaiian Shirts’

In a brief interview, coleus hybridizer Chris Baker, owner of Baker’s Acres Greenhouse, in Alexandria, Ohio, shared his thoughts on coleus that have recently been developed. In previous publications – and probably out loud publicly – Baker has been quoted as calling coleus “the Hawaiian shirts of the plant world.”

Q: As breeders develop more and more coleus for sunnier locations outside, how should indoor locations be adjusted for newer coleus, so gardeners can grow some of the “cooler” discoveries?

A: All of the major breeding companies test their new varieties in full sun because that’s where the money is. If they perform well in lower light, it’s a bonus. If grown indoors, the plants should be given as much light as possible to avoid stretching. Most of the enthusiasts that I know who overwinter their crop use grow lights in the darker months.

Q: My experience has shown that older strains of coleus, when grown indoors, become “woody” over time. Have you seen newer hybrids behaving differently?

A: I haven’t noticed much woodiness in any of the newer varieties. The tall growers will get that way over time. The newer shorter varieties won’t.

Q: From your collections, such as the Signature Coleus Collection with the thick puckered leaves, or the Under the Sea series with deeply dissected leaves, please make several suggestions for coleus (and colorful foliage) to try indoors.

A: Of the Signature series’ varieties, I would recommend Gnash Rambler. In the Under the Sea series, Sea Urchin Neon, Sea Urchin Red and Sea Urchin Copper varieties, and the Sea Monkey Purple and Sea Monkey Rust varieties should be good for indoor growing.

Ball Horticulture has some good smaller plants in their Flame Thrower series and Terra Nova has Color Clouds series ‘Hottie’, ‘Maharaja’, ‘Marrakesh’, and ‘Macaw’.– Chris Eirschele

Unconventional Houseplants
Traditional houseplants have their colorful constituents. Do you recall the cream outlined veins against the dark green background in a nerve plant (Fittonia verschaffeltii), or the pink in a tabletop tropical polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)? Both are small houseplants.

Among Tradescantia (sometimes labeled as Setcreasea) species, the familiar wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina) and the purple heart (T. pallida), each alone are able to fill a hanging container. These easy-to-grow houseplants will create a picture of perfect purple color framed in any window. Tradescantia ‘Pink Stripe’ is a newer version with stripes running the length of each leaf. Like its cousin, this tropical houseplant often is used outdoors in summer months, too.

The pothos (Epipremnum aureum) grows variegated heart-shaped leaves on vines so long they are often used to line the top of an elongated living room window. However, the heavily defined creams and yellows against deep greens come from having very good light exposure, usually an east- or south-facing window. The pothos or devil’s ivy ‘Marble Queen’ is so “frosted” you are left guessing if the backdrop is the cream or the green.

Indoor gardeners are in the habit of taking annual plants indoors, including coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), geranium (Pelargonium spp.), and Begonia spp. The Chinese lantern aka flowering maple (Abutilon sp.), so-called for its flowers or its foliage form, is excellent if you have a window with very bright light and the space. Abutilon ‘Souvenir de Bonn’ outlines its maple-like leaves in cream, and the Abutilon ‘Variegatum’ foliage is splashed with yellow. For flower color, try the ‘Pink Lady’, which produces the abutilon’s iconic bell flowers in pink. All abutilon develop into big specimens, but the plants tolerate pruning, allowing indoor gardeners to keep their size in check.


Clockwise: Begonia rex ‘Fireworks’ • Codiaeum variegatumvar. pictum ‘Mammy’ has narrower leaves with reddish colors. • Coleus Gnash Rambler has curled purple-red leaves. It will grow well indoors.


Bohemian Colors
Houseplants with colorful foliage overlaid with grooved leaf texture call to mind Rex begonias (Begonia rex-cultorum group). There are the iron cross and escargot cultivars of long ago, and still around. Rex begonias’ greenish leaves now sport splashed purples so dark the hues turn black and the reds mingle with pinks.

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum) has long been a choice of indoor gardeners. However, it is considered fussy with an annoying habit of dropping leaves that never grow back. The newer varieties have revitalized interest in trying this tropical plant, characterized with bohemian looking designs. ‘Piscasso’s Paintbrush’ has purple painted on narrow leaves.

Another purple plant for the house, purple shield plant (Strobilanthes dyerianus) is easy to grow and loved for its silvery-purple leaves and purple undersides. Purple shield still requires bright light and weekly watering. Pinch back this plant to keep it looking full and tidy.

Perilla frutescens ‘Magilla’ has that “bohemian scarf look” with purple. The dark red to pink and purple interior over green foliage is often placed near coleus, and is treated as an annual, too. The plant grows large and needs bright indoor light to thrive. ‘Fantasy’ appears to have more purple than its relative ‘Magilla’.

Indoor gardeners also are turning to perennials that lately have appeared in more colors. The shady perennial Caladium sp. surprised me with its colors when I was looking for something different to grow last year. The tuber-like cousin of the elephant ear (Alocasia sp.) was once just simple green and white leaves – often in shady outdoor borders. Caladium now sports bright reds, pinks, and huge splashes of white, such as cultivars like ‘White Christmas’. These have inspired indoor gardeners to look for a window in which to grow one, two, or three.

Clockwise: A mixed indoor planting of annual geranium and vinca vine is brightened by a young ColorBlaze series Kingswood Torch coleus (right). • Despite its name, Codiaeum variegatum var. pictum ‘Redspot’ shows off more orange and yellow on slimmer leaves. • Coleus Raspberry Tart likes shade and grows to 20 inches tall. A perfect “thriller” idea for a mixed planting in a large container set indoors.

Hawaiian Shirts of the Plant World
The competition is intense among colorful foliage, but the “Hawaiian shirts of the plant world” – the coleus – have kept pace.

Each year, new coleus cultivars cover greenhouse benches. Though most coleus now can grow in sun or shade, indoor gardeners should consider coleus cultivars targeted for shade. The drastic color changes in some (versus in those that hold their color) is hard to predict; a learning curve should be expected. The mature size of a coleus may be another consideration. The ‘Fancy Feather Copper’ has a long layered form, remains under 12 inches tall, and favors shade or part sun.

I tried the ColorBlaze series Apple Brandy this summer. This coleus grows into a large plant, and the lime green lights up the dark red coloring. Whether I bring it indoors and grow it inside for the year remains an open option.

Colorful foliage brightens indoor gardens, especially as the winter solstice season approaches. People who grow plants inside have an increasing array of highlights from which to choose. Your only dilemma will be having enough surface space and light exposure to satisfy the extent of your colorfully potted plant collections.



A version of this article appeared in a November/December 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Chuck Eirschele, Chris Eirschele, and Chris Baker.


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