Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
With some plants in my garden, I am content to have one or two cultivars. But for some plants, I have to fight the urge to collect every different cultivar I can find. This only seems to happen with plants that are small enough that I can fit several into my landscape without attracting too much attention from my husband, who likes to moan, "More plants?? Why?"
I discovered heuchera, commonly known as coral bells by accident, shortly after moving into my house. I spotted them mixed in with other perennials I knew and loved, and since the tag said they could tolerate full sun, they went in my cart. Fortunately or unfortunately, my home is in a new subdivision, so we'll be enjoying full sun for quite awhile while our trees are still small.
Growing up, the patch of garden I had as my perennial garden had a good deal of shade, so I was much more familiar with shade plants. My all-sun yard has forced a shift in my focus.
Those first coral bells I planted didn't even have a cultivar listed on the tag. I wish they did, because they have proved exceedingly hardy and look really good despite the sun beating down on them relentlessly. Some of the coral bells I've planted since the first ones haven't been nearly as resilient.
When I started actively looking for other coral bells, I found an incredible amount of variety in shape, size, and color. Among friends we joke about some plants being addictive, and coral bells is one that I've become addicted to. It's hard for me not to come home with one if I've been anywhere that sells perennials.
Coral bells are in the genus Heuchera, which includes over 50 different species, many of which can cross with each other. This ability to cross readily between species is part of the origin of the wide variety seen among cultivars.
If you look closely at the tags or catalog descriptions of coral bells, you'll find some are listed as Heucherella. This is not a misprint. Besides different species of Heuchera being able to cross and produce new plants, Heuchera can cross with some species of plants in the genus Tiarella. Heucherella is the two names combined to reflect the inter-genus cross.
Coral bells are native to North America. Despite the wide variation in the genus and all the different cultivars, the plants share a similar basic structure. They grow from thick roots in a rosette. Leaves are palmately lobed on long arching petioles. Flowers are small, and borne on long stems in clusters held well above the leaves. Sizes range from about six to twelve inches in height to around twelve to twenty-four inches in width.
Different species of coral bells have been found in a wide range of habitats, many very harsh. Some are found growing wild in the dry arid climate of Arizona, others can be found tolerating salt spray on the California coast. Without a doubt the hardiness of individual species has contributed to the hardiness of today's cultivars.
The genus Heuchera was named for an 18th century German physician, Johann Heinrich von Heucher. There is some doubt that this man had anything directly to do with the plant named for him. It was not uncommon for plants to be named after prominent people in society at this time in history.
The other common name for Heuchera besides coral bells is alumroot. This name comes from the plant's bitter taste. This bitterness is due to high levels of tannins produced in the plant.
There is a wide range of conditions suitable for coral bells, depending on the cultivar. Most can tolerate partial shade. Many will prefer partial shade to sun, while others will perform better in partial shade to shade. There's no real way to know what a particular cultivar prefers unless you read the tag or catalog description.
A great feature of coral bells is that they are semi-evergreen. The plants maintain their colorful foliage well into the winter. Some of the cultivars in my garden will only lose a couple of leaves all winter.
I found after this winter, which seemed to go on forever, that some of my heucheras had quite a bit of die back. The plants typically have multiple crowns, or growing points, in a clump. Many of my more unusually-colored or formed cultivars had several crowns die this winter. One of my absolute favorites, 'Snow Angel' which has a lacy white variegation on a green leaf, had all but one crown die this winter. I will give extra TLC to the crown remaining and may add a second plant just as extra insurance.
As with most plants, coral bells prefer moderate moisture and well-drained soil. I have seen them surviving in very dry, poor soil conditions, but that appears to be very cultivar dependent. I've noticed that the cultivar 'Palace Purple' seems to be very popular in new landscapes, probably because it tolerates soil that is not ideal. If you live in a new subdivision, you know about soil that is less than ideal!
While coral bells do flower, and their shape and color is the source of their name, most people grow them for their diverse foliage color and shape. The cultivar names are also fun. The 'Dolce' series all have food names. 'Dolce Key Lime Pie' is a brilliant lime green ruffled leaf with white flowers. 'Dolce Peach Melba' is a gently lobed leaf in a glowing peach hue, with bright pink on the underside of each leaf. 'Dolce Crème Brulee' is also a soft peach leaf, with a hint of green.
Some of the cultivar names really capture the look of the plant. 'Purple Petticoats' has purple leaves that are heavily ruffled. 'Silver Scrolls' has deep burgundy leaves with a silver haze over the surface. 'Villosa Caramel' has leaves the color of buttery caramel. 'Snow Angel' is a bright green leaf with a splash of white variegation, like fine snow drifted across each leaf. 'Chocolate Lace' has leaves the color of milk chocolate with a lacy edge.
These are just a few of my current favorites. I'm sure I'll find some new favorites on my next trip to the garden center! I've taken to keeping a note card listing the cultivars I already have handy in my purse just in case I find myself in a garden center with heucheras for sale.