Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hooked on Heucheras

     As landscapes mature, areas of the yard that previously were in full sun now are enjoying some late summer shade.

"Enjoying", though, depends on the plant (or car) that is in semi-darkness due to nearby taller trees and shrubs. As those sun-loving annuals and perennials strain towards the light, gardeners are scrambling to the nursery, in search of plants that can tolerate some shade.

     Among the popular, low-growing plants for our area that can tolerate the part sun, part shade areas of many California backyards: begonias, hostas, carpet bugle, hellebores, impatiens, lobelia, coleus, vincas and violas. 

     And you can add another contender for the top plant for the shade: heucheras, also known as coral bells.

    Heucheras were probably part of your grandparents' garden. But the latest hybrids of this plant probably wouldn't be recognized by Grandma Tillie. In past generations, heucheras were neat, evergreen foliage tufts of round leaves with scalloped edges. They were noticeable for their dainty, bell-like flowers in late spring. 

     Now, heucheras are famous for their colorful foliage. In 1954, the original edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book had one paragraph dedicated to heucheras. In the latest edition, the editors wax rhapsodic for a full page, describing the dazzling leaves of many of the varieties of these low-growing (about 12 inches high) perennials.

    Heuchera foliage colors range from silver to chocolate, with many shades in between, including purple, orange, deep red, chartreuse, burgundy, apricot and many variegated tones as well. 

     Among my favorite heucheras from wholesale growers, Terra Nova Nurseries: 

"Midnight Rose", with burnished black leaves thickly spotted with hot pink in the spring turning to cream colored in the summer.

Ginger Ale

Southern Comfort

Georgia Peach

Plum Pudding

"Mahogany", which begins spring with purple-toned leaves turning to red in the summer.


Most heucheras have the same garden requirements: well-drained soil, moderate water and part sun in the interior of California; coastal Californians can plant heucheras in full sun, because, as we know, the sun along the Northern California coast takes its summer vacation until late September. Elsewhere in California, put your heucheras on the east or north side of your house or beneath the outer branches of a tree, and you'll have a colorful show throughout the year.

A close relative of the heuchera that can also thrive in an area with light shade: the heucherella. The heart shaped foliage of the heucherella tops out at about 6 inches tall; the heuchera-like flower stalks in the early summer give the plant another 12-18 inches of height. 

Among the heucherellas doing well on the north side of our house:

Alabama Sunrise 


The biggest problem with the heucherella: the name makes you want to emulate a singing mouse in a Disney cartoon:

Heucherelly, Heucherelly,
Night and day it's Heucherelly,
Make the fire, fix the breakfast
Wash the dishes, do the mopping
And the sweeping and the dusting
They always keep her hopping
She goes around in circles
Till she's very, very dizzy
Still they holler
Keep a-busy, Heucherelly!

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