Heucheras have taken off with a bang of late, due to clever plant breeders. In the old days heuchera, (Coral Bells) were “dependable yet boring workhouse plants” with green leaves and red flowers that were thought ‘insignificant’. That’s all changed with the explosion of new varieties. It’s almost impossible to keep track of them all, as they now rival the numbers we see in hostas and daylilies: a collectors dream.
The first introduced new cultivar of heuchera—’Palace Purple’, discovered by horticulturalist Brian Halliwell of Kew Gardens in England—began with a mutation or sport of the original. It was named for the palace at Kew gardens. Its distinctive purple, ruffled leaves made it the ‘plant of the year’ in 1991.
In North America, Dan Heims of Terra Nova nurseries found a variegated seedling he called ‘Snow Storm’. This began a group of silvery-toned heucheras. These two early varieties led the way for the vast numbers of new varieties we see today. Heuchera in its unhybridized form is a north american native, and is tolerant to many challenging growing conditions, including dry shade. The natural growing state is a woodland, or rocky crevices, and there are many native varieties for growers to use for their hybrid stock. Just to add to the dizzying mix of cultivars out there, Heucheras have also been crossed with another plant, the tiarella (foam flower) to make a new hybrid: heucherella, common name: foamy bells. One fantastic reddish heucherella is ‘Sweet Tea’.
Now that leaf colour and shape has become so varied, heucheras and heucherellas have become one of the mainstays of a shady garden. One of their best characteristics is that the leaf colour provides brilliant and varied season-long colour, unlike a flowering perennial that only blooms once. For adding colour in the shade they are unsurpassed.
Heuchera has tiny clusters of bell-shaped flowers, that are held on upright stalks. Some have quite distinctive flowers which can add a note of frothy texture. Some grow heucheras more for their foliage than the flowers: some gardeners actually remove the flowers, and do the same for Hostas. To me, that’s sacrilege. Funnily enough, Heucheras were originally grown for the cut flower market in England by Alan Bloom of England’s Bressingham nursery. I suggest you try a cultivar of Heuchera for flower interest as they are a hit with pollinators. Heucheras with red flowers are loved by hummingbirds, although they will feed on other flower colours as well. One red flowered cultivar to try would be ‘Florist’s Choice’.
It’s helpful to divide heucheras every few years as the crown of the plant becomes woody. A mulch over winter is also a good idea to insulate the crowns from the cold. Top dressing with compost, or composted manure is a good idea in spring. Partial shade, dappled shade, or some sun throughout out the day is perfect for heucheras. Some new varieties have been bred to tolerate hot, sunny areas. The only must is well-drained soil.