Every year, there are more of these colorful, hummingbird-magnet hybrids.
IT’S NOT SURPRISING that Heucheras (coral bells) have become one of the most popular perennials in Northwest gardens. These hybrids of North American wildflowers are easy to grow; come in a dazzling array of colors, shapes and sizes; and combine beautifully with neighboring perennials and shrubs in mixed borders and container designs.
Not that long ago, the only Heuchera commonly available was Heuchera sanguinea. This Southwest native has small green leaves, and is grown mainly for its blood-red flowers, which are highly attractive to hummingbirds.
In 1986, the first Heuchera with colored foliage showed up on nursery shelves. The burgundy foliage of Heuchera micrantha var. diversifolia ‘Purple Palace’ was just the tip of the iceberg. Every year, an increasing number of new Heuchera hybrids with colorful foliage becomes available. Some exciting new ones for 2017 include ‘Silver Gumdrop’, with semi-glossy silver leaves and rosy overtones; ‘Black Pearl’, sporting jet-black, scalloped leaves; and ‘Appletini’, with lime-green leaves overlain in silver.
Generally hardy to about minus-30 degrees, Heucheras grow best in morning sun or bright shade. Varieties with darker-colored leaves generally can handle sunnier conditions, while those with golden or yellow leaves are best planted in shade to prevent sun scald.
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The most important requirement is well-drained soil. Planted in clay, Heucheras usually succumb to root rot. Avoid wetting the foliage, which can lead to rust, a fungus disease that begins with raised bumps on the leaf surface before turning the leaves brown and unsightly. If you’re having serious problems with rust, try growing the varieties that have proved immune to the disease: ‘Sugar Berry’, for example, is a very attractive 6-inch miniature with purplish-pink, darkly-veined foliage.
Two new introductions are ‘Northern Exposure Lime’ and ‘Northern Exposure Amber’. These large clump-forming hybrids remain colorful year-round and have remained rust-free in Pacific Northwest garden trials for several years.
The biggest problem with Heucheras is that after many years in the ground, some varieties form upright, bare stalks with leaves only at the top, making them look like ugly little palm trees. The best way to solve this problem is to cut the entire plant right down to within an eighth of an inch from the ground in early March. Don’t panic when you see what your Heuchera looks like after you do this.
My “Gardening With Ciscoe” co-host, Meeghan Black, questioned my garden expertise the first time we showed this technique on our TV show. Even worse, when she returned three weeks later and saw how big and full it was, she accused me of replacing it with a new one!
When you cut your Heuchera down, work organic fertilizer into the soil around the plant, and keep the soil moist. It will grow back so beautiful and lush, in a few weeks it will look better than the day you bought it. By the way: Don’t toss those upright stems you cut off; rather, plant them up to the leaves in a shady, moist area. The entire stem will root, and next spring you’ll have lots of new Heucheras ready to transplant.
The flowers on the hybrids tend to be less colorful than the red blooms of Heuchera sanguinea. Don’t worry: These less-conspicuous flowers still attract hummingbirds, as I found out when I added a few bunches of flower sprays to a centerpiece bouquet on my patio table. Despite the fact that six of us were seated around the table, the hummingbirds surprised us by feeding on the Heuchera flowers in the bouquet right between us as we dined. The only problem was that I was wearing a red sweater, and one of the hummingbirds kept trying to stick its beak in my ear, which can by very disconcerting when you’re trying to enjoy a Brussels sprouts casserole.