I took it for a faery vision
Of some gay creatures of the element,
That in the colours of the rainbow live,
And play i’ th’ plighted clouds.
-John Milton (1608-1674)
Comus, Line 298
There is no question why the rainbow flag is the banner for the gay community, for to belong to this members-only club is to be part of a breathtaking, multi-hued assortment of personal styles and approaches to life. The gay flag was first designed in 1978 by Gilbert Baker of San Francisco, the homosexual world’s Betsy Ross, to illustrate how we as a people, from the leather daddies to the lesbian mommies, from the blatino hustlers to the Birkenstock feminists, represent every culture, ethnicity, age, gender, race, personality, and socio-economic background possible. We are loud, meek, brown, red, sane, crazy, old, young, black, white, thin, fat, pink, yellow, rich, poor, man, woman, and all things in between. We come in every tint of every shape imaginable and we stand together under one rainbow-striped family banner. We are a cheerfully unified, downright campy lot, darn it, generally happy go lucky and working together as we search for our rightful place in the world. Like any family, we may fight amongst ourselves, but face one of us and you face us all.
Even though surely not imagining the same gay creatures as I, Milton’s poem never-the-less paints a lyrical picture of the gays mingling on life’s playground. We are a fairy vision that in the rainbow live and in the plighted clouds play. And in those plighted clouds we thrive. Gloria Gaynor, diva supreme and the 1970’s poetic parallel to the 1670’s Milton (and much dearer to our dancing gay selves), says it all (and I paraphrase): we will survive, oh as long as we know how to love, we know we’ll stay alive . . . we got all our lives to live and we’ve got all our love to give, and we’ll survive, we will survive. . . hey, hey!
We are one raucous, rockin’, colorful family; we are a rainbow clan treading stormy skies and it is love that binds us together. It is not despite our differences but precisely because of them that in our midst I feel safe: in a band of misfits, no one is an outcast. I love my rainbow people.
I also love the rainbow that lives quietly in my garden, a living representation of this symbol of my gay family. She is the humble coleus, a hardy annual and distant relative of the mints, a plant of bright cheer that adds a welcome splash of any color your homosexual heart desires. Feeling ruby red this season, Dorothy? No problem. Salivating for salmon? Not to worry. Chartreuse, you say, with a slight lisp and forced French accent. Un-purse those lips and lower that eyebrow, Sugar, we have that.
A exploding drag show of color, the coleus holding center stage in my garden or impatiently waiting in the wings on my windowsill for their turn in the spotlights don’t disappoint: Fishnet Stockings (legs from here to there, she shimmies in frog green with deeply indented, dark purple veins), Gay’s Delight (everyone’s favorite little chanteuse, this one lip-synchs Cindy Lauper while clad only in oval leaves of brilliant chartreuse with sexy maroon markings), Pineapple Queen (a Polynesian princess, this mahu hulas across the stage while playing her ukulele, her pointed yellow leaves bordered in deep burgundy), and my favorite, Mariposa (ay carumba!, this butterfly, la Latina muy fuega, has gorgeous scalloped crimson wings with a hint of an orange and pink underglow, deepening to nearly black at the very center). Bravo! Bravo!
Although as extravagantly named and attired as the most flamboyant of gender illusionists, the coleus one-ups your favorite cabaret performer by remaining eminently adaptable. Unlike the queens in the revue, coleus is chock full of reward for very little effort. Too bad the girls can’t be this easy. To satisfy, I mean; we know they can be easy in other ways. But sun to partial shade, dry or wet, free-range or potted; the coleus doesn’t bitch and doesn’t falter. She won’t get pissy over of a broken nail or a misspelled name. Except in the face of arid drought (and who among us wouldn’t wither in that situation?) these charmers live to please. Her thousands of variations – nearly as many cultivars as there are Judy Garland impersonators – bravely and cheerfully endure, putting even Milton’s little fairies to shame as she never fails to put her best size-12 stiletto forward. Give her an inch, and she’ll take an inch. Give her a mile, and, snap!, Honey, look out: she’s gonna’ work that stage. Uh-huh!
Coleus is child’s play to cultivate. Although it sprouts voluminously from seed, why bother? Starts are available every spring at most any nursery outlet. Always a trend-setter (like any self-respecting queen, she refuses to venture out in anything but the most recent of fashion), each season brings a new color or leaf pattern. Reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, crenate, serrate, undulate, lobed: I collect them all and search for new varieties. But I don’t stop at simply perusing the nurseries and garden centers; I keep one eye cocked in my daily travels, for coleus roots easily. Shhhh, don’t tell. . . a few of my specimens may have been pilfered from a kind neighbor’s or unsuspecting stranger’s garden or planter. Accidentally, of course. Just pinch off a section of stem four inches or longer (size queens can take eight inches if it feels better; the dimensionally-challenged can clip four inches but advertise it online as eight). Remove the lower leaves and put the stem in water (oh-so-pretty in a tiny glass vase). She may droop for a day but will perk up in short order and rooting should begin immediately. As soon as there are sufficient roots – just an inch or two – plant directly in the garden or in pots in most any loosened soil. Keep her consistently moist until she is established and then sit back and enjoy the show.
Fertilize with a standard water-mixed solution if you must (the leaf application fertilizers sometimes cause white spots to form on her fuzzy leaves), but it is not necessary. She will do well on her own. To encourage dense foliage, though, pinch the tips of the stems to force branching and, although she has a pretty blue flower stalk, I find it best to pinch these, too. Allowing her to bloom may cause a pause in her growth.
I like to mix and match, grouping like and opposite colors and patterns together, and I’ve put on a decent show except for the time I planted an undulating salmon in concert with a lobed pink. Ewww, girlfriend, looked like two competing Judy’s had a cat fight and nobody limped away the winner.
In full sun these happy little starlets will develop deep colors on a more compact, dense bush with smaller leaves. In a shadier location the colors may be fainter or change completely, red muting to pink and maroon fading to bronze. The plant will also be lighter and more airy in appearance, which I think suits the softer look of a shade garden and complements the more delicate plants that typically grow in such exposure. In any case, when she begins to look leggy, a bit long in the tooth, a harsh pruning is in order. Don’t be afraid; hack her back to a stump and you will shortly be rewarded with new, vigorous growth.
At summer’s end, say shortly after the close of the Fire Island season but before the hard-earned tan lines fade to winter white, I take clippings from all my specimens for over-wintering. They first make a beautiful bouquet grouped in a large vase, and when the roots have developed sufficiently I sort them into pretty pots and line my kitchen or office window, where they cheer my every morning as we all wait for summer’s reign to clear these plighted winter clouds.
“We will survive, as long as we have love to give . . .” I sing, as I make my morning coffee. And I swear they sway in rhythm.