Plant Profile: Bergenias (Bergenia cordifolia)

bergenia leaves

The gradation of colours on leaves is one of the best things about bergenias.

Bergenias, a somewhat underused perennial, were for me very much acquired taste, in the category of plants I would look at and think “whyever would you plant that”? But I’ve now been awakened to the beauty and usefulness of these tough ground covers. There are quite a few bergenia varieties now: large and small, and even a variegated version. Bergenias consist of fan-like glossy leaves that grow upwards in clusters at a slight angle. Their strongly-veined and sturdy rounded leaves have an almost vegetable-like look to them, reminiscent of rhubarb leaves, cabbage or some other vegetably plant. They add a smooth, glossy texture to the garden, and the leaves are tough, and, unlike hostas, not attractive to snails. They look best when massed as a ground cover. They do sport flowers in mid-spring, in pink or white, popping up in clusters on stalks.  In my view, the flower is not one of the major selling points of this plant.

bergenia in rock garden

Swath of bergenia foliage in rock garden shows the leaves red colouring in winter. Taken in our mild December 2015.

Bergenias winning factor is their ability to thrive in dry shade. Dry shade is the kind of garden many Toronto gardeners deal with—it’s one of the drawbacks to our tree-lined streets. Yet bergenias do well in the worst kind of dry shade: under Norway maple trees, where the soil is completely embedded in the trees’ fibrous root mass.

This winter I’ve noticed another benefit of bergenias: their outstanding winter interest. While other shady groundcovers like lily of the valley die down to the ground and look messy over winter, bergenias tend to be evergreen and sail through with their glossy leaves held high. The leaf colour is another winner with bergenias, ranging from deep green to bronze and red, often with colour gradations on the same leaf. Colour gets more pronounced and intense in fall and winter. Now that I’ve fallen in love with tough, beautiful bergenias I will always make a space for them in my garden.

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