Heuchera, commonly called coral bells, is a group of North American-native plants, with several species native to Maryland.
In fact, if you go to the C&O Canal National Historical Park in Maryland to see the Great Falls of the Potomac, you can easily spot some Heuchera pubescens (I think) or downy alumroot, growing in the cracks of the cliff as you cross the bridge from the mainland to the island. Talk about “good drainage!”
There are several very active plant breeders working with heuchera, crossing the many species to create new hybrids. The hybrids feature colorful foliage, and sometimes also have nice flowers, depending on what was used in the breeding. If Grandma Heuchera had nice flowers, the offspring might, too. In fact, I’m old enough to remember when all the heuchera we sold had green leaves and attractive pink, red or white flowers. These have fallen out of favor with growers to some extent, but we try to have some of them available from time to time.
Personally, I find that even those without showy flowers make an airy display when in flower, in a wispy sort of way. Often times, though, folks just pluck the flowers off as a distraction to the foliage, sort of like turning one eyebrow into two.
In the last couple of years, a lot of attention has been given toward developing heuchera hybrids that actually survive in the South. There is a heat-tolerant woodland species called Heuchera villosa (one of those found in Maryland) that imparts additional vigor to the hybrid mix.
These hybrids have larger leaves, and are not as shiny as the others. ‘Caramel’, ‘Mocha’ and ‘Georgia Peach’ are some examples. Siting is important with heuchera. They are good in containers, as long as the container is sheltered in the winter, say up against the building out of strong winds. In-ground, they need decent drainage, especially in the winter. Better on a slope than in a low spot. Sun for a few hours in the morning is ideal.
Life expectancy: if sited well, perennials come back year after year, but there is a limit, and some perennials have a longer attractive life span than others. They are perennial, not immortal.
Peonies frequently outlive their owners, and may be the only thing remaining as a reminder of where a farm house once stood. A heuchera only outlives its owner if the owner has had a serious spot of bad luck. More than three years for a heuchera is pretty good.
I have some ‘Prince of Silver’ still looking nice in their sixth year; ‘Caramel’ and ‘Silver Scrolls’ doing well in year four; and ‘Mocha’ and ‘Georgia Peach’ doing great in year three.
In fact, the ‘Mocha’ are spectacular, if I do say so myself. And let me tell you, I tend to garden in the manner that I believe to be the way many of you do.
I dig the smallest hole possible and cram the plant into it. I feel that this helps in my recommendations for plants that are easy to grow. Plus, I am essentially lazy and I get a discount.
This approach does not work well with heuchera. Not well at all. My heuchs that have survived and thrived are in:
- A large raised planter in the carport, in potting soil, and
- An actual prepared flower bed under a big oak tree that I have added compost and pine bark mulch to over the years to improve the soil
Deer resistance: heuchera often shows up on deer-resistant lists. I would say it’s not a preferred food source like pansies or hostas, but they definitely will hit them. At Sandy’s Plants display gardens near Richmond (Sandy’s is a wholesale grower which supplies many of our perennials) the deer eat just the heuchera flowers. In my garden, they will hit the foliage. I don’t have a lot of deer pressure, and I find that in my situation, repellants work. I like “Deer Solution,” because it smells like cinnamon instead of a junior high school gym locker. Makes you less unpopular with the neighbors.
If you have tried heuchera in the past, and failed, give them another try. Start with containers (they are great color accents), and see what happens!