The heuchera used to be a cut-flower plant, with sprays of dainty flowers in pink and white. In the last thirty or forty years they’ve emerged as fabulous foliage plants with leaves that dazzle and please. The heuchera craze began with ‘Palace Purple’, a plant named in 1984 by the late Alan Bloom of Bressingham in Norfolk. The original, which had dark-red foliage, was spotted by the then Assistant Curator Brian Halliwell in the garden of Kew Palace. Alan bulked it up and it went on to become an iconic plant - although there are far better heucheras on offer now.
The American heuchera connection
The arrival of ‘Palace Purple’ provoked a new era in heuchera breeding for foliage, rather than flower, especially in America where heucheras grow naturally. There are between 35 and 50 heuchera species, depending on which botanist you believe, and they’re all found in North America. These members of the Saxifrage family are known as coral bells and alumroot. Most are found on the western side of North America and the majority of wild species are found at higher altitudes on rocky slopes in crevices. However most named heucheras are bred from lower level woodland species so many prefer dappled shade in the garden, but not deep shade. Hardiness is not a problem and heucheras can also resist heat.
Montrose Nursery in North Carolina produced ‘Montrose Ruby’ in 1990, a silver and purple using ‘Palace Purple’ as one parent. ‘Montrose Ruby’ was one of the foundation plants used by Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nursery in Oregon, the biggest raisers of heucheras in America. Dan, a self-confessed foliage fan, spent time as a young man scouring nurseries looking for interesting ‘sports’, shoots with different foliage. In 1998 he spotted a variegated heuchera and named it ‘Snowstorm’ and this led him into the world of heuchera breeding.
Terra Nova Nursery deliberately hybridised three species with interesting foliage, Heuchera Americana, Heuchera micrantha and Heuchera cylindrica, producing a rainbow of colourful heucheras. They used micro-propagation to bulk them up quickly. This sterile technique involves growing plants in glass flasks under lights and it has several advantages. Thousands of plug plants can be produced within months, far more than by traditional division, and plant material can be sent round the world cheaply within the glass flasks. Many sell all over the world.
Terra Nova’s new heucheras were tough and easy to grow and Dan Heims gave them evocative names such as ‘Chocolate Ruffles’, ‘Lime Rickey’ and ‘Velvet Night’. They had a wide appeal to gardeners and flower arrangers, whether their leaves were veined or frilly edged, because they came in such a variety of wonderful colours. Heucheras keep their foliage in winter so they look sensational in containers, giving year round interest, but they’re also good garden plants.
More and more heuchera varieties have popped up year after year and often, when you’ve had a favourite, you can’t get it again because a better one may have popped up, or the original may have broken down under micro-propagation. This is why there are so many heucheras to choose from! There are two specialist heuchera nurseries in the UK (listed below) and they introduce new heucheras every year.
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Foliage for winter
It’s the paler and brighter colours, with frosted foliage or heavily veined leaves, that stand out best against the bare earth in winter because darker foliage tends to get lost in winter light. Notables include ‘Silver Scrolls’ and ‘Spellbound’ and both are wonderful in winter light because the frosted plummy foliage is heavily veined in deep-red. ‘Beauty Colour’ has a combination of pale-green foliage that develops to plum. ‘Can-Can’ has frosted foliage but the ruffled edge shows the vivid-red underside of the leaves. Whenever a leaf has a red undercarriage it does well in shade. ‘Green Spice’ has heavily silvered green foliage.
The darkest heuchera is the almost matt-black ‘Obsidian’ and this is a handsome addition among silvers. It could be planted with ‘Lime Rickey’, a bright, frilly-edged Chartreuse-yellow. Red-veined yellows also light up the garden and ‘Red Lightning’ is a new one suitable for sun and shade. Some heucheras have huge leaves and there is a new giant lime-leaved one called ‘Guacamole’ and a giant black named ‘Black Sea’, both new this year from Plantagogo. Peachy foliage is also popular.
The Heucheraholics website lists heucheras for sun and shade, because different heucheras enjoy different conditions depending on the species in their breeding line.
Growing heucheras in containers
Heucheras make great containers plants and almost any heuchera looks good in a pot as long as it gets some shade and is planted in loam-based John Innes compost that holds moisture. Compact varieties, with stunning foliage, include the red-veined yellow ‘Red Lightning’, the silvered jade-green ‘Mint Frost’ and ‘Milan’ which has warm-pink flowers above silvered pink-red foliage.
Heuchera 'Silver Scroll'
Heucheras are tough, resilient and easy.
Where to plant heucheras
Most need dappled shade and friable soil and they look best planted in drifts, in dappled but not deep shade.
Those on heavy clay should grow heucheras in containers.
Feed potted heucheras with potash-rich tomato food every 2 weeks, for better foliage and more flower, and avoid a fully sunny position.
Pests and diseases
Vine weevils are the main pest and they cut notches round the leaf edges. Check heucheras regularly by tugging the stems. If you find weevil damage wash the roots and repot small sections in gritty compost.
Tidy the foliage in late Autumn and in spring because the old leaves can get tatty.
Choosing heuchera varieties
Best heuchera for flower
‘Rave On’ is the most floriferous with masses of bright-pink flowers held above silvered foliage. 20cm/8in
Best heuchera for winter foliage
Any silvered leaf with dark veins looks wonderful once the bare earth turns dark. ‘Silver Scrolls’ is very resistant, tough and widely stocked. 24cm/10in
Best heuchera for a container
Warm-toned oranges shine in terracotta pots and ‘Caramel’ has pink undersides to the peachy foliage. Add blue muscari or blue Anenome blanda for contrast. 30cm/12in
Best heuchera for flower and foliage
’Sugar Plum’ has fingered foliage in frosted damson with dark veins showing through. The dainty flowers, which appear between May and September, are silver-pink. The silver frosting comes alive in winter. 30cm/12in
Where to buy heucheras
Heucheras are common in garden centres but there are two specialist heuchera nurseries in the UK offering a lot of unique varieties.
Plantagogo www.plantagogo.com / 01270 820335
Heucheraholics www.heucheraholics.co.uk / 01590 670581 /07973 291062
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