The Gardener Within: Joe Lamp'l, a master gardener and author, shares tips on growing the new varieties of coral bells.
The heuchera species — coral bells — has been around a long time. “Palace Purple” is a well-loved shade plant in gardens everywhere. Its large, burgundy leaves make it a natural for eye-catching designs. But there’s more to the family. Coral bells hybridize so easily that breeders seem to come out with new variations of color and texture every year.
The original heuchera had plain green leaves. Now, in addition to the common burgundy, you’ll find green with red veins, white marbling, bright gold, peachy orange, browns and tans. Many have a silvery sheen that adds sparkle, and some carry a second color on the undersides of the foliage. They keep a border full of color and texture when other perennials are between blooms, and always look fresh and neat near the front of the bed.
Back in the day, the common coral bells had showy red flowers that hummingbirds loved. Then, as the fancy foliage took the spotlight, the flowers seemed to lose favor with breeders. Today, many coral bells, like “Ebony and Ivory” and “Cherries Jubilee,” show both fancy foliage and tall, lovely blossom spikes. When they come up with a way to make them deadhead their own spent flowers, coral bells will be just about perfect!
These dense, mounding perennials have a substantial look. Mix them with vibrant foliage plants or sparkling flowers for a perfect focal point in a small planter.
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Varieties and cultivars like “Melting Fire,” “Palace Purple,” “Montrose Ruby” and “Bressingham Bronze” are perfect for this. Just one caution: Too much burgundy in a shade garden might create too dark of a void. Mix burgundy with chartreuse or yellow plants and flowers. The dense foliage also works well as a ground cover. Determine the final size of the cultivars you want to use, then space them so they’ll grow together in a tapestry of color.
Coral bells in containers are a great alternative to coleus, too. The ruffled-leaf types add tremendous texture. Try “Lime Ricky” next to blue-flowering marine bells (Browallia speciosa) or purple heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens) for a striking combination. “Petite Pearl Fairy,” “Petite Lime Sherbet” and “Petite Pink Bouquet” go well in smaller arrangements.
At the end of the season, in Zones 4-9, remove the coral bells from the pot, pop into the ground and cover with straw mulch for extra winter protection for the roots.
Coral bells aren’t difficult to grow, but there are a few things you need to do to keep them healthy.
Most heuchera do best with afternoon shade. Too much sun can scorch the foliage, except for the cultivars with showy flowers. These will have stronger stems and brighter blossoms in full sun.
Well-drained, neutral soil (pH 6.7-7.0) is best. Mix in a bit of well-rotted organic matter or compost when planting, and add some sand or small grit if the soil has poor drainage. Set the crown — the point where leaf growth begins to emerge from the plant’s base — slightly higher than the soil level so moisture won’t collect over the crown and cause rot.
Just a snip off the top:
Every spring, cut away the old foliage, but be careful not to damage the crown in the center, where you’ll see tiny new leaves forming. To keep the garden looking neat later in the year, snip off the spent flower stems right down into the foliage, so no cut ends show.
Deal with difficulty:
If your coral bells are in soil that’s too wet or too shady, you may have crown rot or fungus problems. Bunnies also like to gnaw the plants down to a stub if you’re not careful. In summer and early autumn, the black vine weevil (Otiorrhynchus sulcatus) may burrow into the crown and cause leaf wilt and, ultimately, death. Beneficial nematodes (Steinernema spp. or Heterorhabditis spp.) can control them.
Divide to multiply:
After four or five years, coral bells lose their vigor. Carefully dig the clump from the ground and use your fingers to break it apart. At the top of each section you’ll see clusters of leaves forming new crowns. Break these off and discard the old center section. Plant the new divisions with leaves up and the crown just above the soil line. Keep moist for a week or two until the new roots become established.
Joe Lamp’l, host of “Growing a Greener World” on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.
Some plant may be considered noxious weeds in your area. If you’re not sure what plants may be invasive in your area, check with your local garden, horticultural center or noxious weed control board.