The Dirt: Peals of color

I love Heucheras (aka coral-bells, though they're really only part of an expansive family): their name, their many-colored cousins, their place in the garden (more shade than not, at least in the Southeast), their delicate flowers that float above the mounded foliage, their season-long endurance, and the fact that deer steer clear of them. I'm a total sucker for them, and it seems I'm not alone. In Wayside Gardens' online catalog, coral-bells are listed among customers' six favorite plants for the season — specifically Heuchera 'Frosted Violet'. An excellent choice, I think.

Color splashes: Although its flowers are pretty, colorful foliage is what makes coral bells, or alum root, a special garden treat. photo by Marvin Bagwell

Coral-bells, or alumroot (scientific name: Heuchera), was named for Johann Heinrich von Heucher (1677-1746), a professor of medicine at Wittenberg. (A perverse part of me wonders whether Heineken beer might somehow have been named for him too, but this is a garden column after all.) This perennial evergreen or semi-evergreen herb, a member of the Saxifragaceae family, forms basal clumps of heart-shaped leaves which, from a garden standpoint, are the real deal here. Although the flowers make a beautiful addition to the perennial border or shade garden, as with hostas, the foliage is this plant's calling card.

The leaves vary widely in color, and coral-bells is hardy in zones 3-10. It is every hue from burgundy-black to 'Palace Purple' (a hybrid that was named the 1991 perennial of the year) to lime green (I have my own ideas about lime green in the garden) to the new delight of Heucheras, 'Amber Waves'.

Let's face it: Keeping color in the garden all season is a challenge. If not for my Heucheras this past Memorial Day weekend, my out-of-town relatives would have been treated solely to my fading foxgloves, gone-to-seed irises, needing-to-be-deadheaded azaleas, bushy-but-bloomless bleeding hearts and soon-to-be-but-not-yet-stunningly gorgeous bank of astilbes. There are times when the garden is either completely green awaiting the next flush of color or showing bare spots till the gladioli emerge.

I marvel at the folks who ask me how I keep my garden blooming all season long. I don't — I just don't schedule company unless something's flowering. The Memorial Day weekend was an exception driven by the threat of a mother who'd already decided the barbecue would be at my house. My complaints about the garden being out of sync fell on deaf ears.

So thank the Lord for Heucheras, whose brilliant foliage won the hearts of all and sundry.

"What a delightful plant!"

"Such stunning color!"

All that excitement made up for the lack of flowers, and I got to lecture on the need for contrast, creating depth with color, and overdependence on blooms alone (OK, so they all walked off in search of more Heineken, but at least I tried).

There are some 55 species of Heucheras, and hybridizers are having a field day. There are so many cultivars now that it's almost impossible to choose one. Garden centers from Lowe's to Ingles have succumbed to the Heuchera mania, and I'm not complaining. Here are a few standards plus my favorites:

Heuchera americana is first on my list, probably because it was my very first purchase. This tough little plant performs without fail year after year. The leaves are purplish (especially when first emerging), and it continues to stand out in the garden through November, December and even January. The greenish-white flowers (about 15 to 20 inches tall) aren't particularly attractive, but I think it's one of the best Heucheras for the South.

Next, of course, is coral-bells, or Heuchera sanguinea. Hailing from New Mexico and Arizona, it's the smallest of the Heucheras, making it perfect for edging or the front of any border. The bright-red flowers stand 10 to 20 inches tall and (at my house, anyway) last from June to August if I'm consistent about deadheading. In this climate, they require excellent drainage and part shade, and they don't like heavy clayey or acidic soils. The best way to propagate Heucheras is by dividing them every three to four years.

But after you get familiar with the standards of the Heuchera world, it's time to branch out. Try my new favorite variety, 'Amber Waves', with its pale-orange, gold and deep-amber leaves. I even have a peach-colored one whose name I've long since forgotten; it outperforms the nearby Tiarella (foam flower) every year. The rabbits love the Tiarella but ignore the Heuchera — just one more reason to love these easy plants.

Heucheras are on sale at several local garden shops right now, so hurry out and get several. When the rest of your garden is looking drab next year, you'll be so glad you did.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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