The Colours of Coleus



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.

Dark blue, almost black dye from Coleus plant rubbed into the fibre on this bilum by the Herowana (Crater Mountains) women in PNG.


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. 

The Blackberry Waffle Coleus – the pigment king.
My Art – I painted this mixed media called Paradise Birds with Coleus ‘Blackberry Waffles’ – it is the pink and purple background. I also used the blue seeds from grass and turmeric for the gold and yellow bird heads. This work is on paper.


16 thoughts on “The Colours of Coleus”

  1. This is fascinating; I am wondering whether the dyes derived from coleus can also be used in food? Do you have any information on that? Your painting is really vibrant; what a wonderful way to add an extra special energy to your art by using natural dyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am sure you can dye anything with the dye – as long as it is of natural fibre (and absorbing). I don’t know about eating or dying food. No, I have not done research on that. Some of the coleus plants smell minty, I don’t want to suggest anything – It may be something to look into. 🙂


    1. Oh wonderful. Thank you for visiting my blog. I would love to see why you do. I sure will visit. I am experimenting with some natural dyes from my garden with watercolours. The colours are quite vivid. Will show you some soon. Thank you.


  2. That is lovely! I did not realize that the colors of the plant could be used for any type of dying or painting processes. I miss coleus, I used to grow it also, normally in pots. A debilitating drought hit Texas in 2011, and we are now in a desperate situation for water. I haven’t been able to have flowers in three years. Hope still springs eternal….


      1. I do too, so far we have been getting some rain, hopefully it will continue. Don’t worry about overlooking the comment, I do that too, sometimes I get lost in all the technology 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s