Published July 10, 2011 | By Robert LaHoff, Halls Garden Center & Florist
The longer I spend time in the green industry the more I realize that a well-balanced landscape really does consist of a mixture of plant types. Great design, I believe, has a balance of deciduous ornamentals, conifers, perennials, bulbs and perhaps a tropical or two for some spice. Early on in my education I believed conifers to be supreme. And while my belief is that conifers are stately, bold and colorful they can stand to be supported, brilliantly, by perennial and annual color. One particular genus that I have grown to be quite fond of is Heuchera.
Heuchera is a versatile group that seems to have endless possibilities. At least 50 species of herbaceous perennials, all are native to North America. The most common name for this group is coral bells, however, alumroot is also used. Palmately-lobed leaves seem to be the biggest attractant for me. Heuchera was named after Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677-1746), an 18thcentury German physician who, I believe, would be proud of the exciting colors today’s Heuchera bring. There is considerable variety with these some 50 species. Adding to the complexities is the different conditions these Heuchera prefer. Temperature, soil and light are just three obvious hurdles that Heuchera can be sensitive to. With that said, Heuchera are an engaging group that have many gardeners and non-gardeners WOWED! Heuchera sanguinea, can be found in the dry canyons of Arizona while Heuchera maxima is found on the Channel Islands of California amongst the rocks and wind of the salt water shore. Horticulturists have enjoyed playing with this species, hence developing many new types. Bloom size, foliage color, foliage types and geographic tolerances have gardeners collecting the next great Heuchera.
Natives of the Northwestern United States have used tonic derived from Alumroot roots to aid digestive difficulties and the leaves, though somewhat astringent, have also been used to add complexity to “bland greens”. The majority of Heuchera sold for gardens today are hybrids of Heuchera americana. Our most popular seller Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’ was discovered in a royal palace in England and is believed to be a hybrid of H. micrantha x H. villosa, later crossed with H. americana.
Aside from their value in the ground supporting other plant types, I have found them equally rewarding in planters. Again, big bold colors and textures set within the confines of interesting pottery gives drama to any space. Specifically, at our own house, Heuchera ‘Black Beauty’ rests in a planter. ‘Black Beauty’ has purplish-black foliage with ruffled outer margins. I really don’t care about the tiny white, bell-shaped flowers it produces, it’s the foliage in a dark space that keeps my attention. An herbaceous perennial with a tiny footprint, 12-16”, ‘Black Beauty’ has a big impact in a cobalt blue container with Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, golden hakone grass. Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ was hybridized with Heuchera villosa for improved heat and humidity tolerance. That being said, New Jersey gardeners should seek this one out. Large, cinnamon-peach leaves turn burnished amber in the fall months. Creamy-white summer flowers, again, are wasted on me, as the foliage is rich enough. Heuchera x ‘Georgia Peach’ was also bred with villosa. ‘Georgia Peach’ shows the same heat and humidity tolerance and doesn’t seem to melt away in our agonizing summer months. Large peach-colored leaves have a sort of white, veil-like pattern. Dark orange tones are clearly evident in the spring, while rosy-purple tones follow in the fall. Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’ has new leaves emerging a bright gold, maturing to a peachy-orange. ‘Caramel’ seems to take more sun in our yard. Finally, Heuchera ‘Sashay’ has just made our back yard. A small mass planting of ‘Sashay’ surrounds a smaller Ginkgo biloba ‘Korinek’. ‘Sashay’ has bicolored foliage, dark green on the top with a purple belly, and heavily crinkled edges. It is because of these textured edges that you can clearly see the two colors working together in the garden. Its tidy, mounding habit quickly reaches 16 inches tall and wide and seems a perfect fit for my OCD tendencies.
Vibrant colors, great texture and endless possibilities await your garden should you choose a Heuchera. There have been great strides made since Johann Heinrich von Heucher. Perhaps the only thing that can eclipse Heuchera is Heucherella, a perennial flowering plant that is a hybrid of Heuchera and Tiarella. Clearly a topic for another time!