Do Coleus Plants Come Back After a Winter Freeze?
Do coleus plants come back after winter freezes? Can they handle cold temperatures? Will they die in colder weather and need to be replanted? These are questions most first time coleus owners have. In this article, master gardener and coleus expert Laura Elsner walks through what you can expect.
Coleus are beautiful tropical plants that add color to containers and in the garden. They do this without flowers. Well they do flower, but that is definitely not their main feature. It is their beautiful foliage that attracts attention.
Coleus comes in so many different varieties, sizes, and colors (no blue, no true purple, don’t be fooled online) that there is sure to be a coleus that will fit your space. They are also widely available to purchase from garden centers and nurseries, or they can be easily grown from seed.
So the million dollar question, do coleus come back after a winter freeze? And can they take the cold? Let’s dive into these questions and figure out a solution to keep your coleus alive for as long as you can in your area.
Do Coleus Come Back After a Winter Freeze?
The short answer is that coleus are not frost-tolerant plants. While not impossible for them to regrow after a frost, most will likely die if they are exposed to colder temperatures and are hit by frost. They will not survive in areas that get below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Coleus are extremely tender plants, so it’s important to make sure they are kept in a more warm and humid environment. There are ways to extend the life of your coleus though, which we get into below.
In order to understand the conditions coleus can take, it is important to understand where they come from. Knowing if they originate in a more humid, or arid environment can help you plan for how to care for them once you have them in your garden.
Coleus have been enjoyed in English and American gardens for hundreds of years. They actually originate from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the northern regions of Australia. This means that they are tropical plants and require tropical growing conditions. More specifically, this means they don’t like the cold.
Knowing where coleus comes from will help us determine how it likes to grow. It is part of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. This tells us how this plant likes to grow. Similar to most pothos cultivars, coleus is a low growing plant that creeps and crawls around the tropical forest floor. We also know that it is native to tropical areas. This means that it has not adapted to withstanding cold, below freezing temperatures.
A plant’s native growing conditions will tell us about what temperatures it can withstand on both the high and low ends. I think it’s often thought that all plants will prefer more temperate climates. But this isn’t always the case.
Lots of plants that are native to areas with frost and cold require a period of dormancy. They won’t grow in areas with year round warm weather (peonies and lilacs come to mind, but there are many, many others).
At the end of the day, plants evolved to grow in their own specific native conditions for millions of years. Just because we decided to take them and bring them to other parts of the world doesn’t mean they will tolerate other climates.
The good news is most areas in the world do experience tropical climates for a period of time, in the summer months. An area where the average weather is always 64F (18C) and above is considered tropical. This will be a different span of time for different places.
I am from a northern climate, our ‘tropical’ weather period is from mid June until about early September. That’s the length of time I can grow coleus in my garden. Search for the frost dates in your zone or area to determine when you can grow tropical plants outside.
Tropical areas never receive frost. The only areas that fall into this category in the United States are the southern tip of Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. These are the areas where a coleus can grow happily year round.
Everywhere else can experience frost, and frost kills coleus. Fairly instantly too I might add. Coleus will droop and look sad in temperatures 50F (10C) and below, they will stop growing in these conditions. But once a frost hits, it almost just melts their foliage to black. Your coleus is dead.
This is why coleus is mostly considered an annual, it is sold in the summer, planted after the final frost date, and then dies after a frost. It will not survive winters that have below 32F (0C) temperatures.
So yes, your coleus will die if it gets any frost, it is one of the most tender plants in the garden. But there are ways to extend the season. This is a great option if you live in an area that only receives frost a few times a year. It is also an option for someone like me.
I live in a very cold northern climate. We can get a frost early in the fall, or even late summer. But then we can get 2-6 weeks more of frost free days. I want to enjoy my annuals for as long as I can. So to extend the season by using frost protection.
Keep a close eye on the weather. As a gardener, I am glued to the weather report in early spring and fall. You can set up alerts on your phone to notify you of a frost alert, or you can join online gardening forums in your area. There will always be an avid gardener shouting “a frost is coming!!”.
Now the frost is coming. If your coleus are in manageable sized pots, bring them either inside the house, or into a garage or shed. Bring them back out once the weather warms back up to about 50F (10C).
Covering Your Plants
If your coleus are in the ground, or in very large pots, they will need covered. You can purchase frost cloth online or at a local garden center. But this is not necessary. I have been saving plants from frost for decades and have never purchased one. Towels, blankets, or sheets work great.
If your plants suffer from bits of frostnip, just pinch or cut off the brown bits. If it is completely brown and limp, it is done. Coleus are a beautiful one day, completely dead the next when it comes to frost. So pay attention to frost dates in your area.
I will mention, if your coleus got hit with frost and died, but there are no more frosts in the forecast, prune back the dead and wait. Your coleus may regrow, you’ll notice new sprouts along the stems, even if it’s the tiniest little sprout, that means it will regrow.
So this means every year, if you live in a non tropical area you just have to throw out all your coleus right? Well not necessarily. The beauty of tropical plants is they also make great houseplants. Coleus makes a good houseplant over the winter.
There are a couple of options to overwintering your coleus, the first is bringing your coleus inside and treating it like a houseplant all winter. The second is to take cuttings of the plant, and replant them in soil or water inside your home.
I actually don’t know why coleus aren’t more popular as houseplants in the first place, they have all the beautiful foliage of say a polka dot plant, a nerve plant, or a calathea, but unlike those plants they don’t die with a single wrong glance in their direction (I kid of course… but I sometimes I do think my calathea died because I looked at it the wrong way). Coleus are very simple indoor houseplants.
Bringing Coleus Indoors
To transition your outdoor coleus indoors you will need to do a few things. First choose the nicest healthiest coleus if you have multiple. Check for pests such as spider mites, aphids, scale etc. and check for powdery mildew. You can spray for these things, but it’s way easier to start with plants that aren’t plagued with problems to begin with.
I recommend only choosing one plant of each type of coleus if you have multiple in your garden, they are so easy to propagate (which I will get in to) that you can make many coleus from one mother plant.
Transplanting into Pots
Now either dig up from the ground, or remove from the pot it’s in (note: If it is growing in a pot by itself, and the pot is only slightly larger than the coleus plant itself, skip this step and leave it in the pot). When digging it up with a shovel try and get as much of the root as possible, they don’t have very deep or tough roots so it shouldn’t be hard to get a good clump of them.
Now choose a pot that is only slightly larger than the root ball. Don’t pick a giant pot, it will leave your coleus prone to root rot. This is because the roots won’t be able to soak up all the water that the excess soil in the pot absorbs. It will end leaving the soil soggy, which coleus don’t like.
You may need to shake off and scrunch off some of the excess soil to get a good fit into your pot. Then add fresh potting soil and place the coleus into the pot. Water well. A good tip is to submerge the pot (it is important to make sure any pot you choose has drainage holes in the bottom) into water and let the plant and soil soak up what it needs and then let the excess drain out.
Clip off all the yellowing leaves. Don’t be shy, you can cut your coleus a lot and it will grow back bigger and bushier than before. Every cut you make, two shoots will grow out.
Now to start the transition to indoor life. To be honest, I have checked the weather, noticed a frost coming and then grabbed everything tender and quickly shoved it indoors. They survived. Coleus especially is fairly resilient. Even if it drops leaves it should recover. But ideally you would bring your coleus in a week or so before a frost is expected.
That way you can gradually introduce them to life inside. Bring your coleus in and place it near a window where it can still feel the outdoor temperature (if it’s below 64F out, keep it away from the window). This is to make sure your coleus doesn’t get shocked by the sudden switch. Plants don’t understand that they can be moved around and when they sense change, they don’t like it. After a few days or so of this bring your coleus into a bright area that it will stay for the winter.
Sun & Water Indoors
I keep my coleus in my full southern exposure window in the winter, and they love it. I have a few I keep a bit farther away from bright light, and they don’t mind. The vibrant colors will fade in lower light conditions. If it’s too low light the coleus will get very spindly and weak. Luckily this is easy to corect, once it is brought to better light conditions it will grow vibrant and strong again.
Coleus do require frequent watering. Weekly watering is important. Coleus will tell you when they need water. They are divas, they will droop and pout until they get a drink. Really pay attention to this, it doesn’t take long for droopy and pouty to turn to the point of no return and death in a coleus plant.
If you notice it drooping, don’t wait, go grab a a glass of water and pour it in. I set a reminder on my phone to check coleus, especially if they’re in an area of the house I don’t always look at. If you have loose potting soil and drainage holes in a pot, it’s hard to overwater a coleus. They are pretty forgiving that way, they just don’t like soggy, dense soil.
If your coleus dies from underwatering, look very closely for any signs of tiny leaves, they will regrow. I’ve brought back coleus from the most miniscule leaf. Soak the plant and wait, if it remains a dead stick in a week, it’s a dead stick (sorry). But if there is any sign of new growth, it is still good and will regrow. Don’t let it dry out again.
The second way to overwinter a coleus is to take a cutting. Coleus are ridiculously easy to propagate. I got to the point where I had to start composting the cuttings from my coleus because I had every vase stuffed full of cuttings.
Take a clipping of any coleus you wish to save. Aim to cut the soft supple new growth, not the hard woody stems as they are far easier to root. You don’t need much of a clipping 3” is fine. Strip off the bottom few sets of leaves and place in water. They will make roots. They can live in water almost indefinitely. But I find if the end goal is eventually to get them to grow in soil to get them into soil either right away, or soon after they get roots. It shocks the plant to go from water to soil when it has a lot of roots (not impossible)
To get your coleus into soil either take it as a cutting right away, or after is has been in water and sprouted some baby roots. dip the cut end in rooting hormone. Rooting hormone is available at specialty garden centers. It’s not totally necessary, but it does help the cutting establish roots faster. Now place the cut end into soil.
It is important to keep the soil moist at this point. Placing a dome lid or a plastic baggy over the cutting for about a week will help keep it from drying out. The coleus cutting will look really droopy when it is first planted. Once it starts to perk up is a good sign the transplant was successful. Keep the cutting out of direct sun during this process.
Now you’ve put in all the work to overwinter your coleus. Then you bring them all outside on the first warm spring day, and bam, they’re sunburned and limp and maybe dead. Don’t do this. Just like we had to acclimate our coleus to indoor living, we need to reacclimate them for outdoor living. Although I did say it is ok to skip acclimating them inside if you have to, don’t skip the hardening off process to bring them outside.
Hardening off takes less than a week and will ensure your cuttings or plant can withstand the elements. Your coleus is now used to indoor living, no wind, rain, or harsh sun. So now it will have to be reintroduced to these conditions.
Start by bringing your rooted cutting, or plant out into a shady and protected area for 4-6 hours, bring them in for the night. The next day, add a bit of sunlight, dappled would be best, for a few hours. Then bring it back inside again at night. The next day add a bit more light, and then bring them in.
On the final day leave them out overnight (if the night temps are above 50F 10C). At any time if the plants are appearing bleached out, sun burned, or droopy, bring them back to a shady protected area, or back inside. Make sure they are kept evenly moist through this entire process.
Coleus can not handle winters, or even frost, but that does not mean we have to throw away our glorious foliage friends every year. if you live in an area that gets below freezing weather, over winter them indoors.
If you only seldom experience small bouts of freezing weather or wish to extend the season, cover them when the temperatures dip. If you live in an area where there is no frost, you can enjoy coleus in the garden year round.