Fancy foliage on little-known, under-used plants called heucheras can add drama to your fall and winter garden.
Even as near-freezing temperatures descend on your yard, heucheras stand up to the challenge. In fact, just like cool-season collards, heucheras seem to perk up and look better with some chill in the air.
Professional horticulturists like the plant and use it often, and garden centers nationwide stock it regularly. The National Garden Bureau – www.ngb.org – spotlighted heuchera as the Perennial of the Year in 2012. The plant is cold hardy in Zones 4-8.
“I love heucheras,” says Eric Bailey of Landscapes by Eric Bailey (www.landscapesbyericbailey.com) in southeastern Virginia. “They are wonderful plants that add a lot of interest in the garden.”
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In Richmond, Va., where the weather tends to be cooler than southeastern Virginia, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden gardeners say heucheras hold their foliage color throughout winter.
“Heucheras are fantastic additions to perennial borders as well as mixed containers,” says Grace Chapman, director of horticulture at the botanical garden (www.lewisginter.org).
“I like them because they have such striking foliage colors and light, airy flowers.”
When Grace uses heucheras in designs, she adds pops of either burgundy or chartreuse to punctuate the landscape.Great burgundy, and almost black tones, can be found in Frosted Violet, Plum Pudding, Palace Purple, Black Beauty and Silver Scrolls. Brighter tones appear in Citronelle and Caramel, she says.
“Heucheras are very adaptable to many different, often harsh, environments,” she says.
“Most of them prefer part shade to full shade, but cultivars such as Autumn Bride (green foliage with white flowers), Miracle (chartreuse leaves fade to dark red with a bright margin) and Frosted Violet (dark purple foliage) can take morning sun if planted in moist soils.”
There is a variety of heuchera for just about every gardening region in the country, according to Mt. Cuba Center, a Delaware plant research and testing site on the East Coast, and Terra Nova, a plant developer and breeder in Oregon on the West Coast.
Mt. Cuba Center is doing extensive research on 87 different cultivars of heuchera, which is native to many parts of the United States. Open to the public Fridays-Saturdays April-November and by appointment, Mr. Cuba Center is just a 30-minute drive from the famed Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.
Its heuchera study is ending its second year, and data and pictures from the second trial year will be added to the website this winter, according to George Coombs, assistant research horticulturist.
Generally, heuchera likes moist, but well-drained soil, according to George. Prolonged periods of water-logged soil can quickly lead to root and crown rot.
“We’ve also learned that heucheras really benefit from a late summer clean up,” he says.
“Leaves from the spring flush tend to get worn, faded, and begin to deteriorate by the end of summer. Removing the worst leaves from around the base of the plant can really improve their appearance for the fall season’s new flush of growth.”
Many heuchera are sold as being tolerant of light conditions ranging from full shade to full sun, George continues.
“We’ve tested each of our 87 cultivars in the sun. Almost all survived this two-year period, but very few looked good enough to recommend planting them in full sun. Full shade to part shade is best. However, the bright chartreuse cultivars need to be in full shade for most of the day. Even a little bright sunlight can bleach the leaves.”
George recommends heuchera for the home garden because their foliage changes color throughout the year. This generally coincides with temperatures – plants look one way in cool weather and another in warm weather. Light intensity can also affect color patterns.
“So be aware that the color you see at the garden center may not stay exactly the same all year long- but that makes them all the more interesting,” he says.
No matter what heuchera you choose, it must have good drainage, according to Dan Heims, president and co-owner of Terra Nova Nurseries and co-author of “Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells.”
“In nature, heuchera are found in vertical locations, typically with some moisture at the roots or on a forest floor with good drainage and some moisture beneath the compost layer,” he says.
“Winter-wet will cause rot. Wet kills.”
Heuchera also needs to be reset every two to three years, he advises.It is very beneficial to do one of two things: either dig a plant up, divide it, richen the soil and replant, or simply mound improved soil to the tips of the “necks” of the plant.Early spring is the best time to do this, or when soil is first workable.
Mulching is highly desirable. Many heuchera are used to having a fall leaf mulch which adds an insulating layer as well as providing a nutritional benefit.Compost or bark mulch can be placed over plants as long as they are not completely covered.