If you are looking for perennial plants that have it made in the shade, consider heucheras, also known as coral bells.
These grow in shady areas and produce dainty white, red, yellow or pink bell-shaped flowers that float above a base of wide fluted and often colorful leaves. They lend themselves to rock gardens, shady woodland settings, landscapes, containers and borders.
Nearly 50 varieties naturally inhabit woodlands, prairies and mountainous regions and Heuchera sanguine even grows alongside cacti in Chihuahua, Mexico. From these, breeders have introduced many more varieties. You will be able to find one that will do well in your garden.
During the past 10 years or so among plant breeders, there has been a surge of interest. As a result, there are even more beautiful flower and foliage forms than ever before and they are stronger, fuller and more disease resistant than the original varieties. These plants are the right size to adapt well to containers.
The plants originated in the Americas, but like many other plants in the New World, they found their way to Europe by the end of the 1500s as explorers took home their new findings. In 1738, Carl Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, categorized and named these plants with the name of a close friend, Johann Henriche von Heucher, a German professor of medicine and botany. Heucher’s name was pronounced “Hoyker” in his native country.
Although most Americans pronounce the name “Whoker- uh” it should really be pronounced “Hoy-ker-uh.”
In American history, Native Americans use these plants to stop wounds from bleeding. It does work. The stems can be used to stop bleeding if you cut yourself while working in the garden.
Heucheras also appeared in the first American seed catalog in 1804. People weren’t beating down the seed company’s doors to get these plants — the varieties at that time simply weren’t as fetching as they are now. In the mid-1800s H. sanguine found its way from Mexico to Europe and provided more variety for breeding. When Brian Halliwell released Heuchera villosa or Purple Palace, interest in these plants surged. Dale Hendricks of Northcreek Nurseries released Dale’s Strain. The two plants were hybridized to form the first foliage varieties. The results of these crosses produce cultivars with various shades from green to very pale yellow and from olive to purple.
Terra Nova Nurseries has taken a great deal of interest in these plants and has bred a number of varieties with colored foliage like metallic rose, yellow, orange, red, velvety purple and black leaves. A French producer has developed large leafed varieties like Brownies and the Big Top Series distributed by Ball Horticultural Company. To add further interest, foliage may by hairy or smooth, glossy or matte, and it may change color as seasons change.
These plants are lovely in a flowerbed and they know how to mind their own business. The other plants in the beds can grow in peace because the heucheras stay where they are planted, growing in attractive clumps and providing a lovely background for the other plants. Different plants are suited to different climates, so it is wise to know which are best suited here. For our area, one good variety to consider is Heuchera American. It likes woodland situations best and survives extreme hot and cold temperatures. It mounds very well and has some fun leaf patterns. Green Spice and Marvelous Marble are two good examples.
Heuchera cylindrical is very compact with strong rigid flower stems that stand up to windy conditions. The plants attract bees and butterflies. However, its green or white blooms are not as showy as some other varieties. Greenfinch has fresh green flowers on short panicles. Don’t be discouraged if earlier attempts to grow these have failed. You simply need to make some adaptations for the plants’ growth habits. Where possible, plant heucheras in well-drained soils. Add organic matter to loosen soil and to encourage drainage. If your soil is wet or full of clay, try planting them at least 24 inches apart on center in raised beds, on a berm or in containers. Even a mound of soil when you plant them will help.
Don’t baby the plants too much. They don’t need much fertilizer and they like to be well drained and mulched. They are drought tolerant so they do best if the soil dries between watering. They prefer neutral or somewhat acidic soil but will grow without too much complaint even in soils like ours.
They don’t need to be in deep shade all day — filtered light is also acceptable. If they are going to get a short daily sun bath, it should be in the morning hours. Hot, intense afternoon sun will fade, wilt or scorch the foliage.
Deadheading isn’t much of a chore either. When flowers fade, they can be flicked off. If the stems get too long, cut them off and the stub will resprout. The piece you removed can be rooted to produce a new plant. As coral bells grow, the crowns tend to rise up out of the soil. Mulch them with leaves or other lightweight mulch to protect the crown in the winter.
If the winter has been hard on them, cut back foliage damaged by snow and cold in the early spring. Another option as plants push upward is to lift the plants and divide them to replant in the spring. In any case, divide them every two or three years. A 2-year-old plant can be divided into six plants. Bury the divisions to the crown in rich, welldrained soil and water them in. If foliage wilts, it may need to be removed.
Although most heucheras are propagated initially by tissue culture, you can purchase seed packets as well. The seeded varieties are usually H. sanguine types. The types with fancier leaves usually grow from tissue culture because they do not grow true from seed. To start plants from seed, begin by moistening seed starter mix and filling a tray to the top with soil. Tamp it gently. Seed is very fine so sow it lightly on top of the moist medium. Germination begins after eight to 14 days in 70 to 72 degree soil.
Wait until the tiny plants have three to four true leaves, then transplant them into cell packs or flats. When they are 3 inches across, transfer them to pots or the garden and water gently. After danger of frost has passed, move them gradually from indoor to outdoor conditions to acclimate them to increased sunlight and temperature changes.
You probably won’t see many pests attacking coral bells, but strawberry root weevil can be a real problem. The larvae eat underground and may eat right through the plant beneath the ground in late May to early June. The plants look as though the top fell off.
The adults notch the leaves above the ground making an edge that looks something like it has been trimmed with pinking shears. This is less damaging, but when you see that tell-tale sign, you know the larvae are at work below. When you see these signs, control is important since each adult can lay 300 eggs. Spray with Bonide Systemic Insect Control in the evening hours. You can also spray with beneficial nematodes in the spring and fall. If you don’t like chemical pesticides, try pouring hot water on the ground to kill existing larvae.
Heuchera leaves are a very long-lasting addition to a cut bouquet. Cut the leaves so each has a fairly long stem and put them into water right away with the flowers of your choice. Change the water weekly and the leaves can live up to two years in a vase. Given time, they may even start to root. Information for this article was provided by the National Garden Bureau as part of their designation of 2012 as the “Year of the Heuchera.”