The Garden Life: Heucheras offer gardeners array of colors, choices

By Robb Rosser, Columbian Gardening columnist

Published:

 
photoRobb Rosser

Ready or not, a host of new perennials have stormed the garden world and are vying with the old standbys for our attention. If you're like me, you came into the spring season with a list of plants to add to the new spring garden. Since heucheras have done so well in my garden in the past, I've been looking forward to adding a few more selections to this year's garden. With the proliferation of new plant material on the market, I'm beginning to doubt my own ability to keep up with a burgeoning supply of new introductions. Then again, I rarely balk at such an intriguing challenge.

Even in the cooler microclimates of Clark County, the earliest spring perennials are up and blooming. In my garden, heuchera hybrids tantalize with new leaf growth in a medley of purple, green, orange and amber tints and hues. These bold clumps of colorful, roundish leaves are further enhanced by lobed or scalloped edges and contrasting under-leaf color. Flower spikes shoot up and out of the foliage on wiry stems from 10 inches to 3 feet, flirting with a mist of petite red, cream, pink or white flowers in extended clusters. Bloom time varies by type from early spring to late summer. Some will continue late into fall.

The selection of heucheras now available in local nurseries has expanded to an almost absurd degree over the last few years. Fortunately, most do extremely well in the Pacific Northwest climate — and when they do well, they are almost all worth having in the garden. The biggest problem for most of us is that the selection of hybrid plants is so vast and, quite often, the difference between one plant and another is so difficult to detect that we back away from choosing any one plant out of sheer bewilderment. The plant's common names are coral bells and alum root. Although they are typically recommended for partial sun conditions I have found that most can handle full sun for at least a part of the day in our climate.

My recommendation is to take a chance and choose a selection of plants strictly for their appearance. Choose a few for their individual leaf colors while keeping your own garden's color palette in mind. Try them out to see how well the family of heucheras will do in your own garden. Once you know that they are going to thrive in your environment, you can get more serious about choosing specific hybrids. Use them in rock gardens or massed together as a groundcover in beds and borders. Since they come in a vast array of foliage colors, they make good container plants to move around the garden.

Just a few of the best selections I've seen in local gardens include heuchera Amethyst Mist, with deep purple leaves that age to silver while retaining deep green or purple veins. Chocolate Ruffles has leaves that appear as dark as rich chocolate from above, with burgundy undersides that show off well in the slightest breeze. The foliage of Obsidian is so intensely burgundy that it appears black at certain times of day and always reflects the least bit of light available in its deep, glossy sheen.

I'm partial to those hybrids that come in subtle shades of caramel and amber and seem to mix well with every other color in the garden. My favorites include heuchera Marmalade, with bright purple-orange new growth that changes over the seasons into a kaleidoscope of colors in the red-orange-amber family. Crème Brûlée emerges a delicate, peach-orange with creamy yellow flowers. Peach Flambé has bright apricot leaves that take on purple tones as summer turns to autumn. All of these pop with color in containers and seem to bring out the best color in other perennials, too.

I find it rewarding to consider leaf color and texture in addition to the flowers when choosing perennials for the garden. Among the many varieties of coral bells that I have already planted, I find that the first spring leaf is as beautiful as any flower blossom. On top of that, I've been especially delighted with the foliage as it changes through the seasons, staying lovely even in the faded hues of winter. In the natural cycle of the garden, plants will come and go. With that in mind, I'm hoping I still have time to try all the newest heuchera introductions waiting in the wings.