Heucheras or Coral Bells
Coral bells are an invaluable plant for the sunny rock garden, to line a path or in the light shade of a woodland. Their evergreen leaves have scalloped edges. In spring, tall, thin flower stalks rise up with tiny blooms on them, giving a frothy look.
For a low-growing plant with incredible foliage, it’s hard to beat heuchera. When you add pretty, delicate blooms and the fact that most heucheras are evergreen, what you end up with is a “must-have” plant.
There are nearly 300 known varieties of heuchera (a North American native), also called “coral bells” or “alum root.” In general, heucheras grow to about eighteen inches tall (not counting the flower spikes) and around eighteen inches wide. Their blooms grow on spikes of delicate “bells” in shades of red, pink, white, and purple, generally blooming for four to eight weeks in late spring through early summer. Recent varieties have made the blooms more prominent. But it’s the foliage that makes heuchera a winner. Purple, black, red, orange, brown, silver, chartreuse-you name it, you can most likely find a heuchera in that color.
Heuchera prefers part shade, although some cultivars do better in full sun. They like soil that is average to rich fertility, moist, and well-drained. Heavy soils can be amended at planting time by incorporating compost or leaf mold into the soil from the planting hole. Heuchera are great plants for either edging a bed or using a group as a focal point. They suffer from very few pests and diseases, but powdery mildew can be a problem. Be sure to give them some room so they will get good air circulation. Heuchera tend to be shallow-rooted, and will heave in the winter if there is a lot of freeze/thaw action. To prevent them from heaving, give heuchera a good, three inch layer of mulch in late fall.
Caring for Heuchera
Since heuchera prefer moist conditions, be sure to water in hot, dry weather, giving the plant about one inch of water per week. Heuchera can be fertilized with a balanced organic fertilizer in early spring. Divide plants every three years or so, or when you notice that the stem is looking woody or blooming diminishes. Mulch heucheras in the fall to prevent heaving, but don’t put the mulch up against the crown of the plant, or it will rot. Pull the mulch back from the crown two to three inches. Deadhead after the blooms fade to promote re-bloom.
There are three main ways heuchera can be propagated: seed, division, and leaf-bud cuttings.
Seed: The thing to note when trying to propagate from seed is that cultivars will not come true from seed-only species will. So, for example, Heuchera americana is a species heuchera that will grow true from seed. Heuchera americana ‘Chocolate Veil’ is a cultivar of H. americana, and will not grow true from seed. To grow from seed, the most important step is to stratify the seeds, meaning that the seeds are stored in the cold (a refrigerator will do) for at least six weeks. After stratifying, sow the tiny seeds on top of your seed starting medium, as seeds require light to germinate. They will germinate fairly quickly. Care for them as you would any other plant grown from seed, including hardening them off after danger of frost. Seedling heucheras can then be planted in their desired location in the garden, or placed in a nursery bed for a growing season until they reach a larger size.
Division: Divide heuchera as you would any other perennial. Dig the plant out of the ground and cut the root mass into pieces with a shovel or knife. Replant divisions with the crown at the soil level. This can be done every two to three years to keep the plants vigorous.
Leaf-bud Cuttings: Leaf-bud cuttings are a type of cutting that consists of a few leaves, but most importantly, of a section of the stem from the main plant. This is important because only the main stem has growth buds on it, which is where foliage will grow from. Take leaf-bud cuttings of heuchera any time during the growing season, although spring is best because it allows the parent plant plenty of time to recover before winter. Dip the cutting in rooting hormone, and place it in either seed-starting mix or a 50/50 mix of peat and perlite. Keep it moist, cover the cuttings with a plastic bag (supported so it doesn’t come into contact with the leaves) and place it in a shady location. Once you have roots, you can plant it out in your garden or into a nursery bed.
‘Crimson Curls’ has curly, rich purple leaves with pinkish undersides. This variety works well in beds as well as containers. ‘Crimson Curls’ is compact, growing about eighteen inches wide and tall. Blooms in late spring, sporting long-blooming cream flowers. Hardy in zones 3 through 8.
‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has large, deeply lobed leaves that open bright magenta and mellow to a deep burgundy color. The white blooms appear in spring on eight inch purplish-red stems. ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ is hardy in zones 4 through 9, and can be planted in full sun to part shade.
‘Hollywood’ is a gorgeous heuchera with purplish-black leaves frosted with silver. The leaves are nicely ruffled. In spring, bright coral-red blooms will appear, and will reappear all summer. ‘Hollywood’ is hardy in zones 4 through 9, and can be planted in full sun to part shade.