The species was first introduced into Europe from Java in 1851 by a Dutch horticulturalist. At this time, there were few leaf colors and shapes. A wider variety was available by 1877, when the American William Bull offered seeds at 43 US cents each. However, by selecting for seed production, early flowering was inadvertently favored, and leaf color also declined in intensity. Coleus breeding revived in the early 1940s, and by the 1980s, the availability of an improved range of cultivars led to coleus becoming the tenth most important bedding crop in the US. More recently, vegetative propagation has enabled cultivars with novel leaf colors and shapes to be offered for sale. Plants with trailing as well as upright habits are now available.
In cultivation, plants grow well in moist well-drained soil, and are usually 0.5–1 m (1.6–3.3 ft) tall, though some may grow as tall as 2 m (6.6 ft). Coleus are grown as ornamental plants. They are heat-tolerant, but they do less well in full sun in subtropical areas than in the shade. In areas without freezing temperatures, plants can usually be kept as perennials if well managed. In colder areas, they are often grown as annuals, since the plants are not hardy and become leggy with age. In bright, hot areas, the colors of the plant are typically more intense in shade than in full sun, and the plants require less water there. Coleus also make low-maintenance houseplants, and can often be propagated by clipping a piece of stem just below the leaves and putting the stem in water to root. Young inflorescences may be removed to keep plants more compact.