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Fueling the Heuchera Addiction

Return to Flower articles.

By Dennis L. Patton, M.S., County Horticulture Agent, K-State Research and Extension/Johnson County

It will come as no surprise to most of you that many gardeners are addicts. That is, we are addicted to plants and their growth and culture. As we pretty much know, in society most addictions are not always desirable. However, gardening addictions are harmless and healthy, if not inexpensive. What is it, though, about gardening that triggers us to connect passionately with a certain group of plants?
For example, some people have an unexplained attraction to roses, hostas, daylilies, irises, succulents, dahlias, and the list goes on and on for each plant family. No one would call it a plant addiction if you only grow a dozen or so varieties of hosta. However, when the number hovers in the hundreds, then I would say you are hooked on hosta. We call them hostaholics. If you grow a few clumps of irises in the garden, well, that is normal. But when bed after bed is filled with nothing but irises, then I’d say you are an addict.
I cannot say that I personally have this addiction to one group of plants. I have or have grown, all the ones I’ve mentioned, but I’ve never really had the passion for transforming my garden into a shrine for, let’s say, dahlias. Recently, though, I have had the reoccurring realization that I could be teetering on the edge of becoming addicted to Heuchera.   

Heuchera a.k.a. Coral Bells in the perennial garden

Heucheras, also known as Coral Bells, are an old-time garden perennial your grandma might have grown, but no one ever really got excited about them. That has changed over the last decade as this plant has been reinvented through breeding and research. I am not alone as Heuchera-mania is sweeping through the world of gardening.       

Plant breeders have been able to take a reasonably mundane plant, native to the United States, and create dazzling new hybrids. These new hybrids come in an array of leaf colors, ruffles, frills, two-tone, or contrasting vein colors. Many also have tiny bell-shaped flowers that add to their interest, which, when added all together, create a stunning effect. 
Heucheras are clumping plants that are between 12 and 18 inches across and about 12 inches tall. It is hard to find a place where they will not work in the garden. Some varieties will tolerate full sun while others prefer the shade. They fit right into a woodland or rock garden, make an excellent ground cover when planted en masse, create an edging along a border, or tucked into a container.         

Planting conditions for Heuchera success in Kansas City

They are fairly adaptable to most garden soils. Heucheras prefer good drainage and like to have our heavy clay soils amended with organic matter. They are somewhat drought tolerant but would do best with supplemental water during the hottest, driest parts of the summer. They don’t require fertilization and are pest free. Maintenance outside of the timely watering is removing spent flower spikes and older foliage to help keep the plants looking fresh. Unfortunately many may only be short-term perennials lasting in the garden no more than several seasons.
Take a stroll into your favorite garden center and you will quickly understand how this plant could become addictive. The foliage is stunning, with shades of green, purples, corals, peach, rusty-red and chartreuse lime popping out, calling you to “Come look at me!” No one can resist their cheery beckoning. If the plants could talk, they would say, “Take me home! You want me. You must have me. You have plenty of space. Oh, don’t just buy one; pick up two or three, it’s too hard to choose.” See? That is how addiction starts. Before you know it, your cart will be full and you could find yourself driving off to another garden center in search for more. You have now joined the ranks of plant addicts. You’re welcome.      

Best varieties for heat and humidity of Kansas City climate: think ‘villosa

The popularity and draw of this plant is in the breeding and plant propagation. Breeders have been able to cross the popular Heucheras of different species to bring us the rainbow of leaf shades and textures. Breeders have also crossed Heuchera with their close cousins, Tiarellas, to achieve even more interest, with the resulting plants referred to as Heucherellas. 
Sadly though, like most plants, not all of these exotic-looking varieties are created equal. Some are more durable in our Kansas City climate, while others succumb to our heavy clay soils, drought, and winters, making them short-term guests in our gardens. I have learned that with most aspects of gardening it is always good to do your homework before setting out on the shopping trip. When you do your research, you will find there are many subspecies of this plant.
Over time, we have come to realize that the most desirable attributes of this plant are found when the species ‘villosa’ is in the parentage. Heuchera villosa is the Native American species found in the Southeast, from New York to Alabama. This parentage is what introduces the heat and humidity tolerances needed for the plant to thrive here. Heucheras that lack the genes from this species tend to be weaker and are all-around poorer performers in Kansas City gardens.
Plant breeders are masters at creating interesting plants and they know what motivates our emotions when naming their plants — food, mystery and “bedroom overtones.” Who could resist taking home
  • ‘Black Beauty,’
  • ‘Apple Crisp,’
  • ‘Berry Marmalade,’
  • ‘Fire Chief,’
  • ‘Blondie,’
  • ‘Champagne,’
  • ‘Midnight Rose,’ or
  • ‘Lime Marmalade’, to drop a few names?
These newer introductions join older popular varieties such as
  • ‘Purple Palace,’
  • ‘Plum Pudding,’ and
  • ‘Carmel.’
So, are you addicted to Heuchera, yet? If not, plant a few, and soon you will be like me and say, “I’ve just got to get another.” Remember though, this addiction is harmless, as gardening is good for the body and soul. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. It is so easy to catch Heuchera-mania!
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