Heuchera Hybrids — Coral Bells
Crème brûlée, dolce peach flambé, tiramisu? These could be the names of favorite desserts, but they are also names of some of the new Heuchera cultivars, so called because of the comparable color and design of their delectable foliage.
For years, heucheras that grew natively in woodland and mountain areas of the Americas served mainly as dependable ground covers and neat perennial borders in gardens. The species Heuchera sanguinea—commonly called coral bells or alum root—was the first to come into prominence for its airy, red, white or pink bell-shaped flowers lining slender stems that rise out of compact mounds of evergreen leaves. Hummingbirds as well as gardeners have long loved the blossoms.
However, recently the genus has undergone a number of changes in both appearance and performance that allow heucheras to grow in a multitude of sites with dazzling foliage even more alluring than the blossoms.
In the early 1990’s, one of the first highly colored heucheras, ‘Palace Purple,’ arrived in local nurseries. It is a hardy offspring of H.micrantha, a California native that withstands sun or part shade, is tolerant both coastal conditions and clay, and requires only moderate water. But best of all, its bronze-red, maple-shaped leaves became a welcome accent for not only ground covers and borders, but also as a star performer for containers and perennial gardens as well.
More recently, hundreds of new cultivars have been developed. By combining the best features of the species H. sanguinea, H.micrantha, and H. americana, plant breeders have produced heucheras with foliage in a wide array of colors other than green: burgundy, brown, peach, chartreuse, violet, mahogany and even silver and black. Blends of red and violet, red and orange, orange and yellow, yellow and green are among the most alluring. Many, as they mature, may change slightly in coloration and even display one hue on top of their leaves and another beneath.
Some heucheras have large and highly colored flowers that bloom from early spring into the fall. These can be striking and long-lasting in floral arrangements. Others may feature crinkled or ruffled leaves that make attractive fillers in containers, especially when contrasted with taller and spikier plants.
Many of the new selections take full morning sun, especially when grown in cooler areas of Sonoma County. In areas with hot summers, plants—especially those with yellow-green tones—should be positioned in partial shade with filtered light or in a northern exposure. In any site, heucheras require regular water in moist, well-drained soil enriched with plenty of organic matter.
From a design perspective, heucheras look most attractive when the same foliage colors are massed together rather than in a mix of several different leaf forms and hues. In early spring remove any dead or ragged leaves and any offshoots that detract from the main clump, but remove spent flower stems after each bloom period.
Plants may be divided every 3-4 years when the centers become crowded with short, thick woody stalks. To rejuvenate, lift an entire clump, cut away older gnarled root stalks, and replant the youngest growth. Apply mulch around the base after watering.