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Happy Heuchera

heuchera in whiskey barrel
Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ planted outside Old Line Fine Wine and Spirits and Bistro, in Beltsville.

I’m a heuchera fan. When I began in horticulture, there were just a handful of named cultivars of this perennial available, all with green leaves, featuring spikes of red, white or pink flowers. Times have changed. There have been hundreds of cultivars released, most with attractive foliage, sometimes accompanied by attractive flowers. The foliage comes in green, chartreuse, golden, silver, pink, red, spotted with white or pink…lots of exciting colors to bring a garden or container alive.

That said, I’ve only had a couple that have lasted more than a year or two at my house. I have a ‘Caramel’ in an above-ground planter that still looks nice after ten years. So, it really amazes me when I see a couple of ‘Obsidian’ that I planted (not in my garden) back in February or March of 2016. The cultivar ‘Obsidian’ has been around for awhile, maybe 15 years. It has nearly black foliage, and inconsequential flowers.

Behnke’s had an arrangement to plant three half-whisky barrels located outside Old Line Fine Wine and Spirits and Bistro, in Beltsville. They are located outside the entrance on concrete, in front of a wall, facing west. Hot, exposed, minimal care, and people use the barrels for ashtrays so it’s a tough urban environment. At the time these heuchera were planted, I was planting pansies and decided to put an ‘Obsidian’ in the center of the barrel, ringed by pansies. I figured that by the time I came back with summer annuals the heuchera would either be stolen, dead, or I would remove them and put in a taller annual in their place.

By the time I got back in early June, the ‘Obsidian’ looked so nice that I decided to leave them in. They have survived the succeeding summers and winters to the point that they now totally fill the barrels. They are spectacular. Oenophiles talk about the terroir of a wine, the environmental factors such as the soil that the grapes grow in that influence the flavor of the wine. Since it’s at a wine store, I guess we could talk about the terroir of the heuchera. I think the key here is potting soil that drains well and is allowed to go fairly dry between waterings. I fertilized them on occasion the first couple of years with a slow release fertilizer; not sure of the brand at this point but it would be similar to Osmocote. Water provided by Mother Nature and WSSC.

95% of the care of the planted barrels is done by Larry Pendleton and his staff at Old Line, so maybe ask him what his secret is the next time you stop in for lunch or to pick up some wine (or beer, or spirits) for your next occasion. It’s worth a trip to shop and see some really happy heuchera.

Larry Hurley, Retired Behnke’s Horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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