There are many plant species that have blossomed over the last decade. When I think about a genus of plants that have made one of the biggest impacts on our gardens, the first one that comes to mind are heucheras, commonly known as coral bells.
Going back about 15 years ago or so, the only coral bells available for sale had small, rounded, green leaves with tall, airy stems of tiny coral/red. They had bell flowers that would bloom repeatedly throughout the summer.
Now, there are so many varieties available with new ones being added every year. They have been developed mainly for their leaf colour rather than their flowers. They still get a tall airy stem of small bell-like flowers throughout the summer.
The flower will vary from a beige/tan flower to pink or red. The leaf colours vary from limey yellow, to copper-orange to silver to red and burgundy. There are even varieties that have bi-coloured leaves such as lime with red, silver with burgundy, darker veining with light colour in between the veins. Heucheras are now primarily used to provide that splash of colour in the garden.
Light conditions: The growing conditions for heucheras vary slightly from variety to variety, but it is safe to say that they all prefer a lightly shaded location, receiving about four to six hours of sun per day, or an area that receives more of a dappled light throughout the day. Some varieties can burn in full sun, and most will not do well in a deeper shaded area. I find that the lime-coloured leaf varieties are less sun tolerant than some of the orange and burgundy leaf varieties. The key to successfully growing coral bells is that they all require a well-drained, loamy soil. If you have been unsuccessful in growing them before, chances are that it was because they had been overwatered. They do like to dry out slightly in between waterings. This can be an issue for gardens with in-ground irrigation when run too frequently.
Fertilizer: Coral bells have low fertilizer requirements. The best way to feed them would be to apply a half-inch of compost around each plant in spring. You can also use a slow-release fertilizer such as bonemeal. Do not use fast-release fertilizers (water-soluble fertilizers).
Varieties: The size of the plants also varies with the different cultivars. There are some dwarf forms available, but the majority of the varieties grow about 18 inches high and two feet wide. Because of its smaller mounding form, it makes heucheras a great plant to add into the borders of perennial beds as well as mixed borders. I like to use them where you need to break up leaf colour to provide an accent. Most Coral bells have larger, rounded-lobed leaves that also provide a contrast in texture. Coral bells will really work well with any plant, but some of my favourite companion plants are hydramgeas, Japanese painted ferns, hakonechloa grass and hostas.
Hybrid: As you are checking out the heucheras at the garden centre you may also come upon a close relative of theirs named heucherella. There is a native perennial called tiarella (commonly foamflower). It grows best in a shade to part-shade locations and sports upright, spikey clusters of fuzzy white/light pink flowers. They have now been hybridizing heuchera and tiarella together and have produced heucherellas. They are slightly more shade tolerant than heuchera and have a showier flower. The heucherellas also come in a variety of leaf colours from lime to bronzy-orange to red and burgundy.
Next time you are at the garden centre make sure you check out the heucheras and add some life into your garden.
Joanne Young is a Niagara-on-the-Lake garden expert and coach. See her website at joanneyoung.ca