Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells

Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells

by Dan Heims, Graham Ware

Few perennials have undergone as dramatic a "makeover" as heucheras (coral bells) and their hybrids with tiarellas (foamflowers), the heucherellas (foamy bells). Drawn mainly from diminutive forest-dwelling species with small white flowers and unremarkable foliage, these woodlanders and crevice dwellers are now among the most popular plants in nurseries around the


Few perennials have undergone as dramatic a "makeover" as heucheras (coral bells) and their hybrids with tiarellas (foamflowers), the heucherellas (foamy bells). Drawn mainly from diminutive forest-dwelling species with small white flowers and unremarkable foliage, these woodlanders and crevice dwellers are now among the most popular plants in nurseries around the world. Dan Heims and Grahame Ware not only provide background on the wild species of Heuchera, they also tell how these plants were developed into the garden stars they are today, with an appreciative nod to the breeders who revolutionized the plants' characteristics. The book's main feature is extensive listings of the choice selections and hybrids available commercially; practical chapters on garden care, propagation, and design uses round out this fascinating account. Gardeners looking for the drab and colorless need not trouble themselves with this book — the first ever on these striking plants.

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Timber Press, Incorporated
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It is exhilarating to have a group of plants that can do almost anything you ask of it — which might explain the popularity of Heuchera. A marginalized group of "grandmother" plants with little history and stereotypical baggage as recently as the 1980s, heucheras have risen from virtual obscurity to Top 10 prominence in the new millennium. Back in 1994, Heuchera hybrids were just beginning to makes waves in gardening circles, but it was hardly the kind of wave you could surf on. In the years since we first decided that a book focusing on the genus was needed, we have seen these plants become a staple in garden designs; we have witnessed their uses expand and their core adaptability in gardens increase. Surf's up!

Rising along with the uptrend in gardening, hybrid heucheras have quickly established their own ground in the ever-changing pantheon of perennials for the temperate garden. They are now routinely utilized — often in original ways — to make both our public and our private gardens beautiful. Their versatility and beauty are recognized all over North America, the United Kingdom, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany as well as in the warmer climates of New Zealand, Australia, and Japan. Tried by a variety of climates and situations, heucheras have come through splendidly. After all, what does the reputation of a beautiful plant matter to the average gardener if the plant be not hardy, adaptable, and an "easy doer" to boot? Fortunately the good name of Heuchera survives untarnished, thanks not only to the plant's excellent inherent qualities but to the care with which the hybrids have been selected.

Heucheras (especially the hybrids) give us an array of choices without a lot of demands. Whatever our gardening style — experimental, integrative, creative — we can turn to heucheras, as naturalizer, feature plant, and container plant. Plantsman Dan Hinkley has unreserved admiration for heucheras in yet another capacity, calling their year-round, weed-smothering foliage "the perfect groundcover" (1999 Heronswood Nursery catalog). Heucheras have a primal quality that harmonizes with many settings; this and their ability to provide a continuum of foliage and texture are the chief reasons for their popularity. Often they act as a contrasting foil in combinations that vary with the seasons; this continuity is important because most gardeners want to highlight different plant favorites at different times. In the 1990s everyone was experimenting with heucheras — we heard that Martha Stewart and Rosemary Verey were running around Martha's garden, showy heuchera leaves in hand, considering new combinations against existing plant material.

As Graham Stuart Thomas wrote in Perennial Garden Plants (1990), "The value of good foliage cannot be overstated or overestimated; flowers come and go, but the leaves ... last for the whole season and supplement the floral display." Their range of leaf color and form is precisely what makes heucheras such an exciting subject for the twenty-first-century gardener. Besides the usual greens, we gardeners are given silver-veiled foliage, subtly toned leaves of copper, bronze, purple, chocolate, and soft yellow. Dan recalls a top garden designer picking up a pot of 'Amber Waves', hurriedly holding it to every plant in the trade show booth, and finally declaring, "Omigod, Dan — you've created the new neutral!"

These plants do more than bridge the seasons, they expand them. Heucheras act in an almost evergreen fashion, retaining last season's leaves, and then go on to provide a very early flush of foliage (Dan remembers a midwinter Wisconsin garden where heucheras were the only color in the garden). Whether used stand-alone or en masse, Heuchera accepts whatever role we assign it and plays it with style. Heucheras are the perfect gardening friend!

Heucheras and bronze companion plants

Heucheras can either echo or contrast with bronze companion plants, depending on their own color — and sometimes they do both at once, as Pamela Harper (Designing With Perennials, 2001) explains: "[An echo is] some aspect of a plant repeated in another one nearby. ... What pleases me so much about color echoes is, I think, that although united by similarities, there is also contrast." In this same classic title, Harper makes another excellent and, to our minds, original point when she says, "As harmonizers, I would rank the brownish colors gardeners know as 'purple' equally with soft white and the less light reflecting grays." We couldn't agree more. The popularity of the whole range of brown-leaved heucheras is testament to this. Heucheras like 'Chocolate Veil', 'Ebony and Ivory', and 'Smokey Rose' offer the garden designer a desirable copper through chocolate color foil; the warm qualities of these hybrid heucheras create a soothing and substantial contrast to the enthusiastic greens of spring and the bright notes of summer, and a sympathetic echo of the nostalgic chords of fall.

Heucheras of a like shade can nicely echo purple-to-bronze shrubs (Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea 'Atropurpurea Nana', Corylus maxima 'Purpurea', Cotinus 'Grace', Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo', Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla 'Guincho Purple', Viburnum opulus 'Nanum', V. sargentii 'Onondaga', Weigela florida 'Foliis Purpureis') and are accentuated by bronze- to purple-toned plants, such as Salvia officinalis and cultivars of Ajuga, Berberis, Carex, and Perilla. Other herbaceous plants that do well as echoes of purple-leaved heuchs include Actaea simplex 'Black Negligee', A. s. 'Hillside Black Beauty', Sedum album subsp. teretifolium 'Murale', S. telephium 'Matrona', and Viola 'Mars'. In Black Magic and Purple Passion (2000), Karen Platt lists hundreds of such potential companion plants with bronzed or blackened leaves. With so many choices, we find it helpful to carry a few heuchera leaves to the nursery to mix, mingle, and match with the darkly colorful offerings.

Amber-colored hybrid heuchs like 'Marmalade' and 'Peach Flambé' are stunning contrasts to bronze companion plants. Nowhere in the world have we seen heucheras so well blended with native bronze-colored plants as in New Zealand: from the mats of the prickly Acaena to complementary bronze sedges to the towering spears of Phormium (New Zealand flax, especially dark-leaved hybrids like 'Platt's Black'), heucheras play a bonding role on the horticultural stage Down Under.

The Germans and Dutch have provided endless hybrids of Astilbe, whose lacy, often bronzed leaves can be a nice counterpoint to coral bells; favorites include the compact 'Sprite' and 'Willie Buchanan' China has given us Artemisia lactiflora Guizhou Group, a 3-foot-tall background plant with finely cut bronze foliage. Many selections of Cotinus, the smoke tree, have very dark foliage and fair height (some to 20 feet). Also from China are many Persicaria forms like 'Red Dragon', 'Compton's Form', and 'Brushstrokes', all of which can echo the hues of brown-leaved heucheras. Europe has given us dark polemoniums and geraniums like Geranium pratense Victor Reiter Junior strain (via California) to play with.

One of the best echoic companion plants for purple heucheras is Clematis recta 'Purpurea'; this herbaceous clematis is an awesome sight as it rises out of the earth in spring, its compound dark purplish brown leaves and stems covered in fine silver hairs. In one of Grahame's older display gardens, the aptly named 'Chocolate Ruffles' interacted beautifully as an underplanting to a lovely, random cluster of Aquilegia vulgaris 'William Cuiness' with its bicolor flowers of white and smokey purple-black. In another location, the same hybrid heuch worked as the dominant planting with a colony of Fritillaria michailovskyi on one side and the deeply incised foliage of Sambucus racemosa 'Sutherland Gold' on the other.

Several herbs, like Origanum 'Hopley's Purple', purple basils (Ocimum cvs.), and dwarf nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus cvs.), make good bronzy container companions for heucheras.

Heucheras and silver companion plants

Silver-colored plants conjure up images of the Mediterranean garden. These scintillating silver-grays, as Pamela Harper calls them, can be both a binding mortar to the mosaic of colorful flowering heucheras and an excellent contrast to other colors. Silver plants are also gaining more respect in our gardens. Why? They're usually more drought-resistant than their green-leaved counterparts and bring contrast, texture, and zing to a garden. One of the more appealing aspects of many of the hybrid heucheras is their own silvery veiling; varieties like 'Pewter Veil', 'Mint Frost', and 'Can Can' have a real boost to the designer's palette. Used with sensitivity, silvers and grays can make a garden look both lively and exotic without being too busy.

The amount of light in any given garden must be taken into account, of course; the high light levels of a garden in the arid West obviously cannot be compared to the lower sunlight of maritime gardens. Thus, a dazzling silver focus plant in Portland, Oregon, might be just another plant in Denver, one that blends in and harmonizes. The key here is the degree to which a plant reflects or absorbs light; it is this that determines whether a plant will be a symbol of serenity and softness or take on a brasher, "hey, look at me!" character. Take a silvery Colorado blue spruce: scattered about the property, they become a complete distraction in the garden; as a focus, however, it can be a good tree. In the same way, one should not incorporate herbaceous dazzlers unless one is prepared to go all the way and not hold back, in which case, strong whites may have to be employed, as will strong purples, blues, and softer yellows. In any case, the net effect should be pleasing — which is where the hybrid heuchera really comes into its own.

Do try some of the silver heucheras as a color echo to silver companion plants; the silver veiling that is such an exciting feature of many hybrid heucheras can be used to great effect with bulbs, azaleas, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels as well as de rigueur hostas, Siberian iris, and hellebores. Grahame has used them in a dry interior Canadian climate along with penstemons, agastaches, marrubiums, and such ornamental grasses as silvery blue Agropyron pubescens (ex Ray Brown, one of the bluest hardy grasses available), Corynephorus canescens (grey hair-grass), Koeleria glauca, and Molinia caerulea 'Variegata' (a great variegated bunch grass).

Purple-leaved heucheras like 'Purple Petticoats', 'Obsidian', and 'Velvet Night' contrast beautifully with silvered plants like Stachys byzantina and cultivars of Dianthus (especially the red-flowered forms), Festuca, Lamium, and Sedum. And don't miss the chance to set off the startling Salvia przewalskii, with its silver sheen over large, heart-shaped leaves that are pebbled like a new basketball. Centaureas have always had a following, and some of the funky sculptural forms from Central Asia are finding their way into gardens; Centaurea armata is one such beast, with great spikes of silver not too unlike some of the exotic Morina species like M. persica. Townsendia is popular with the cognoscenti, especially in Colorado. Likely Artemisia species include the low-growing A. glacialis and A. schmidtiana 'Nana', and shrubbier types such as A. ludoviciana var. latiloba and A. stelleriana (not to mention the esteemed hybrid 'Powis Castle'). Some are scary spreaders, so do your homework before planting.

For containers, consider Cerastium tomentosuni or the annual Lotus berthelotii. Lamium varieties like L. maculatum 'Beacon Silver' do well in larger containers, but they can be pushy.

Heucheras and yellow companion plants

The yellow flowers and gold foliage variants of many different plants and shrubs can be used to create superb complementary synergy with 'Chocolate Ruffles' and its bronze-leaved kin such as 'Cappuccino'. For shocking contrastful counterpoint, work purple-leaved heucheras against the gold foliage of Hosta 'August Moon', H. 'Little Aurora', H. 'Sun Power', and many others; Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'; or Veronica 'Buttercup'. Other yellow-to-golden herbaceous plants include Carex buchananii and its fellow New Zealand sedges; Carex ciliatomarginata 'Island Brocade', C. c. 'Island Fantasy'; Filipendula ulmaria 'Aurea'; Fuchsia 'Genii'; Tricyrtis hirta 'Golden Gleam' T. 'Gilty Pleasure'; and cultivars of Hakonechloa macra, Lysimachia, and Narcissus.

As an underplanting to woody plants, try heucheras as a contrast to yellow-to-golden shrubs (Berberis thunbergii 'Aurea', Cornus alba 'Aurea', Hypericum ×inodorum 'Summergold', Ligustrum 'Vicaryi', Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold', Physocarpus opulifolius 'Dart's Gold', Spiraea japonica 'Goldflame', S. j. 'Lisp'), or conifers (Cedrus deodara 'Golden Horizon', Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Fernspray Gold', C. o. 'Nana Aurea', Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Aurea', C. p. 'Strathmore', Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone', Taxus baccata 'Summergold').


Meet the Author

Dan Heims is president of Terra Nova Nurseries, a wholesale nursery specializing in choice perennials; he founded his nursery after a career as a horticultural educator, plant breeder, and owner of a design and build landscape business. His articles, photographs, and plant discussions have been featured in print, television, and radio throughout the world. Heims was the recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society's Reginald Cory Memorial Cup in 2002, which recognized his achievement in Heuchera breeding. Terra Nova's heucheras won nine Awards of Garden Merit from the RHS in 2003. Dan Heims lives and gardens in Portland, Oregon.

Grahame Ware is a freelance writer and broadcaster for Canadian radio, television, and print media. A lifelong gardener, he is a trained horticulturalist and has used heucheras extensively for over a decade. He lives in a log and straw bale home that he designed and built with his partner, Jan, outside of Vernon, British Columbia.

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