Coleus Canina (pictured above) is one of the most colourful tropical plants with almost every colour you can think of. It is my mother’s favourite plant. I grew up with in Lae, Papua New Guinea (PNG) seeing Coleus growing on the side of our house, along the main road at our village, in our food garden or in the cemetery. Everybody grew some kind of Coleus plant. They are gorgeous. We used Coleus to decorate ourselves when we danced. Sometimes, our people just stuck a small branch of the plant in their hair or hung in on their bags for decoration because it is pretty.
I knew the plant had a distinct smell, but I did not know, in Australia, Coleus was planted to repel animals such as cats and dogs from gardens. Perhaps it is a myth? This attractive perennial herb is actually an aromatic member of the Mint family. They’re native to southern Asia and eastern Africa, and they attract butterflies and bees.
In early 1990s, I was engaged by Peace Corp and the Conservation Melanesian to run some entrepreneur workshop and training for crafts people in the Crater Mountains in Eastern Highlands Province, PNG. I had volunteered to teach the artisans and spend some time learning about their art and the way of living. It was here that I discovered something new about the Coleus plant. Certain types of the plant had strong pigmentation. Women were using the leaves to rub into flax fibres as they twisted the fibres into ropes for making (bilum) bags as pictured below. As they twisted the ropes and rubbed with Coleus leaf, the rope would instantly turn from its natural colour into deep purple, blue and even black. I was amazed.
Years later, while living here in Brisbane (Australia) and experimenting with using natural dyes and pigments in my painting, I remembered the Coleus. I had already used coffee, tea, turmeric, beetroot, some grass seeds so it was a refreshing addition to my natural pigments. I had made a trip to the local Bunnings and started growing the Blackberry Waffle, pictured below which gives the strongest colour dye. I made good artistic use out of the plant all summer but unfortunately I lost the Coleus plants in winter. Spring is here so it is warming up and I will start again. That is why I am making this post. Below is an artwork, “Paradise Birds” I created from using a mixture of watercolour and natural pigments from my garden. The pink and purple background in the painting is the pigment/juice from the Coleus plant.