CONSIDER THE CORAL BELLS
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
This genus of perennials has seen many new introductions over the last decade. These include combinations of many different foliage colors, leaf shapes, and flower colors. Except for the very coldest gardens (they are hardy to USDA zone 4, as in much of Vermont), there is usually a place for these new selections.
Coral bells are generally thought of for part shade, and moist soils. Yet in northern gardens they can be grown in full sun, if in a loam soil that stays moist. Moist, not wet, is the key. Wet soils, or an unusually rainy season, may cause them to rot. In my own garden, I have found them to tolerate dry conditions and drought better than wet.
In some sites, such as heavy soils in which plants heave out of the ground in late winter, you may need to top dress around the plants in spring with soil or compost. Their stems may become woody over three to four years. Top dress soil around these as well, or lift plants in spring, dividing off and replanting newer young offshoots. In many gardens though, such as my own, I find plants will live for years and be pest-resistant and low maintenance.
Coral bells (Heuchera) are in saxifrage family. Although there are about 55 species native to North America, what you find for sale are selections of three main species (americana, micrantha, and sanguinea), but more generally hybrids among them. All form mounds less than a foot high and across.
Wiry stems above the foliage, up to two feet high, in early summer bear clusters of many small bell-shaped flowers. These may be variations of white, pink, or red. The stems generally are weak and may topple with wind. The one with the thickest stems that remain upright is 'Raspberry Regal'. Others with generally upright flower stems include 'Coral Pink', 'Molly Bush' (greenish white), 'Palace Passion' (coral-pink), 'Palace Purple' (greenish-white), 'Ruby Veil' (greenish-white), and 'White Cloud' (white).
The leaves of coral bells are their main attraction, and difference among the many cultivars (cultivated varieties). They are generally maple- to heart-shaped, with lobed, wavy, or entire (plain, not cut or dissected) margins. Leaves may have variously colored veins, mottling, or streaks.
There are basically two groupings of foliage colors, green and colored. Some have two seasons of color, the early spring foliage and the mature foliage in later summer. Of these, many emerge glossy and dark burgundy, fading to lighter bronze or even olive. Examples of these include 'Cascade Dawn', 'Persian Carpet', 'Pewter Veil', 'Plum Pudding', 'Ruby Ruffles' (one of my favorite with highly ruffled leaf edges), 'Ruby Veil', and 'Velvet Night'.
Older cultivars were mainly green. Newer green-leaved cultivars may have silver veins, mottling, or streaks. Sometimes this silvery effect disappears through the season. Some of the better choices with green and silver leaves include the older cultivar 'Chatterbox', 'Coral Cloud', 'Coral Pink', 'Eco Magnifolia', 'Lace Ruffles', 'White Marble', and 'White Cloud'.
Many newer cultivars have leaves in colors of purple, ruby, bronze, and even amber ('Amber Waves'). These may be solid colors, or have variously colored patterns that are often silvery. The best choices with colored foliage include 'Bressingham Bronze', 'Cappuccino', 'Chocolate Ruffles', 'Molly Bush', 'Montrose Ruby', 'Palace Passion', 'Palace Purple', 'Persian Carpet', and 'Purple Petticoats'.
During the last half of the 1990's, as part of their extensive perennial trials, the Chicago Botanic Garden (USDA zone 5) evaluated over 60 selections of coralbells. The full results were recently published as part of their Plant Evaluation Notes series, those cultivars listed here merely the highlights. Their top recommendations with the best habit, healthy foliage, many flowers, and hardy, included 'Bressingham Bronze', 'Cappuccino', 'Molly Bush', 'Montrose Ruby', 'Palace Purple', and 'White Cloud'.
'Palace Purple' was one of the first purple cultivars, and was named a Perennial Plant of the Year a few years ago by the Perennial Plant Association. 'Molly Bush', another older variety named by a former nurseryman in North Carolina for his daughter, is actually a darker selection of 'Palace Purple'. In 2001 it won the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticulture Society in Britain. So although new selections are being released each year, don't overlook some of these older ones which are still available and good performers.
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