In the Garden:
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Semi-evergreen Heuchera 'Silver Scrolls' demonstrates the versatility of coral bells in container plantings.

Hail the Versatile Heuchera!

Some 15 years ago, my backyard in Manayunk in Philadelphia was gray gravel surrounded by high, rugged stone walls holding back a steep hillside. Fine terrain for container gardening. An ideal holding area for pots and flats of plants en route to clients' gardens, but it needed serious landscaping to become a thriving garden.

Two plants self-seeded with abandon in the gravel -- violet and yellow-faced Johnny-jump-ups and native coral bells (Heuchera americana). Who can resist Johnny's colorful good cheer? But the somewhat nondescript, green-leafed native coral bells can escape notice and appreciation. They made me smile then, the leaves of each just a bit different in color or form from its sisters and brothers. They were so plentiful and easily transplantable; their progeny are doing the same in several other gardens.

I'm here to champion heuchera's beauty and versatility in the garden. And credit the new, showy, hybrid cousins (often developed in Netherlands nurseries) that increasingly capture people's attention. The many and varied cultivars have moved coral bells from the shady woodlands into prized positions in the ornamental border and three-season containers. They play well with others, combining handsomely with coreopsis, ferns, carex, and azaleas.

The perennial heuchera, aka alumroot, ranges to more than 50 species, all North American natives. The genus is named after 18th century German physician Johann Heinrich von Heucher. The common name coral bells refers to the terra cotta-colored flowers of H. sanguinea. On this species, small bells dangle from spikes in early spring. Some larger-leafed H. villosa push longer flower spikes, often with white or pale green flowers, in late summer and autumn.

Semi-evergreen in the broad sense, coral bells bring rich, multi-season color via smooth or ruffled, lobed or rounded, shiny or hairy foliage, some with purple venation. Leaves traditionally range from green with silver or white to bronze-purple. Recent introductions are copper, orange, red, gold, and ... who knows what else by now! New cultivars are introduced at the flick of a trowel.

Many heucheras we find for gardens are hybrids of H. americana, including the cultivars 'Plum Pudding', 'Green Spice', 'Amber Waves', and 'Velvet Night'. 'Dale's Strain' with silver-blue marbled foliage and white flowers is often crossed with H. villosa for variety. The popular shiny 'Purple Palace' is thought to be an H. micrantha x H. villosa hybrid crossed with H. americana.

More and more new cultivars include H. villosa in their parentage for its heat and humidity tolerance, including such lovelies as velvety purple 'Frosted Violet' with pink flowers in late spring; bright chartreuse 'Citronelle'; shiny, nearly black-leafed 'Obsidian', chartreuse to red 'Miracle', metallic 'Silver Scrolls', apricot to red 'Caramel', and chocolate colored 'Brownies'. H. 'Autumn Bride' is a favorite for its airy white September spires, substantial wavy and fuzzy chartreuse leaves, and durability as a drought-tolerant, somewhat evergreen, spreading groundcover.

Coral bells thrive in moist soil in bright shade. H. villosa tolerates drier soil and harsher conditions than its cousins. Heucheras can pop up and out of the soil during winter's heaves and thaws. I've replanted them more deeply with success.

Gotta love this tried-and-true plant that just gets better and better!

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