January 15, 2012

Winter Blues

Solenostemon thyrisoides, a winter-blooming old fashioned conservatory plant, rarely seen today in any collections blooms on a sunny January day in the greenhouse.

Every gardener should have at least one plant in their garden that stops even the most snooty of plantista's in their tracks, forcing them to ask you "Oh my gosh, what is that?!" Here is one plant that may indeed to that, although it is a winter-blooming tender plant intended for growing in the greenhouse.  The best part is, it isn't really all that rare - it's a coleus. A green-leaved, almost succulent form grown for centuries by plantsmen for it's blue flowers in January and February which brought that special color to conservatory displays and garden rooms to brighten even the snowiest of winter days. 

First introduced to Europe in 1875 by Veitch, this pretty yet rather free-growing ( i.e. branchy and not very attractive) plant does have two qualities that keeps it in private collections - it blooms smack in the middle of winter, and those flowers? They just happen to exist in the most incredible shade of a deep true blue - the sort of blue one only sees in morning glories and cobalt glass. 

It's greatest downfall may very well be it's scent; and it doesn't come from its lovely blossoms, for they have no scent, but this plants scent  (actually, a 'smell') comes from it's leaves - a sticky mixture of chum, sardines and cod liver oil, with just a spritz of turpentine. I kind of like it, actually, only because it reminds me past experiences with this plant, and how it used to bloom in old wood and glass greenhouses in wintertime. It's just part of that entire experience.  

Don't be too confused with the Latin name, for it seems to change annually. It belongs to a clan of plants that just keep getting moved around from one plant family to another ( all within Lamaceae - the mist family- you know, all the plants that have square stems). I know it as a coleus, yet it was classified as Plectranthus as recently as five years ago, and now, pushed over into a genus named Solenostemon ( don't worry, I still call them all coleus too). 

You may need to Google all three genus names to fine this species online, if you want to buy one. Logee's greenhouses sells them, yet I don't see it on their mail order list, you would need to call them ( I know they have it for sale, I saw some yesterday). They list it as Coleus thyrsoides, and Glass House Works sells them listed as Plectranthus thyrsoides, and also as Solenostemon thyrsoides. Regardless of what you call it, this continues to be a fine flowering plant for winter windowsills, and especially in cold greenhouses where it really shines.

Plants can be grown from cuttings ( the Logee's plants have bee growing from the same cuttings for over 100 years), but I have recently read that the finest plants are grown from seed, since the plant is formally classified as an annual. I found seed for sale from the South African seed firm of Silver Hill Seeds, which ships worldwide, yet there may very well be a few other sources. It's not necessarily common, but one can find most anything with seven Google searches, right?


  1. Lovely photos, and lovely coleus. I’ve got a plant like that, a plant people stop and say ‘oh, my goodness, what is that?!’ It is my Dregea sinensis, and I have yet to meet anyone who has this plant, except for where I got the cuttings from. I wrote about the Dregea 13th and 14th January, as this time of year is when it gets its yearly pruning :-)

  2. Thanks Helene, ...and there you go - another plant that I have never heard of. How exciting! Dregea, does it bloom in the winter? I believe that most every vine is aggressive so that is just expected, but since it has fragrance- I must track one down. Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. I've absolutely never heard of this before...and those blooms...those PURE BLUE blooms...swoon!

  4. Very cool! Thanks for sharing. Working at a wholesale greenhouse I see a lot of coleus. Plectranthus is a recent love affair and the 3 varieties I have are all great. This one looks intriguing. ! !

  5. I've never taken cod liver oil but I have heard it tasted horrible. It is always nice to find bad tasting stuff in pill form though

  6. I bought some from Glasshouse works last year and trying to find out which it really is.. this one was a small leaved and purpleish color .. not the blue that I have been looking for .. they are researching the one I have as well.. Hope to find this blue beauty someday
    I posted two links with photos of the one from GlassHouse Works


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