Coral Bells Ring True

Today the dirt felt just perfect between my fingers. So I felt compelled to plant a couple of heuchera in the half-light of a grey Sunday evening.

Recipe for perfect soil:

Start with days and days of rain, so many days you think you’ll go crazy if you can’t plant.

Add two cool, overcast, windless days to let the soupy ground drain a bit.

Soil should appear a rich chocolatey-brown, with the texture of crumbled feta. If soil comes up in great clumps with a giant sucking sound, wait another day.

Trowel should plunge into the ground just so, with a little resistance, but not enough to bruise hands.

Dig in!

Coral bells with morning dew

Coral bells with morning dew

I have fallen madly in love with heuchera (common name “coral bells,” or “alum root”). They’re not showy bloomers. But in April and early May, their foliage steals the show: vaguely palmate/heart-shaped, lacy leaves in all shades of lime, peach, coral, silvery green, and purple, with intricately lacy veins, revive your early spring garden just as most bulbs are petering out and creeping phlox is coming into its own.

Nerdy plant-types like me consider heuchera an old standby low-grower for shade and part-shade. But garden newbies always want to know, “What are those!?” whenever they walk into the garden gate in late April. They often point to several different heuchera (“YOO-ker-ah”) cultivars and ask what each one is separately. The colors are so varied, it’s easy to think “Palace Purple” is a completely different species than “Peach Melba.”

Lime heuchera and J. maple in forground, phlox behind

Lime heuchera and J. maple in forground, phlox behind

When Mom first convinced me to plant a few heuchera in the front yard in my first blind stab at gardening, I wasn’t impressed. I wanted something grandiose, something that would fill in, large and lush, under the silver maple and cedar tree on the corner of our front yard.

The sad purple-leafed clumps slowly withered and died there, just like everything else does amid the life-sucking root competition of the evil silver maple. It wasn’t heuchera’s fault. Once we installed a host of heuchera cultivars in the back yard several years later, in the dappled shade beneath all those black walnuts, we came to appreciate their worth. “Put it where it wants to be, sit back and enjoy.” Lesson learned. Not only did the dozens of coral bells survive there, but the waves of early- and mid-spring color came to dominate the garden in the most beautiful part of the year, when redbuds and dogwoods run their course and before summer delivers its proliferation of cottage-garden blooms.

Heuchera lines the garden path

Heuchera lines the garden path

As if all that brilliant foliage weren’t ambitious enough…now, in the second week of May, about half of our heuchera cultivars are now beginning to bloom: thin shoots bursting with tiny pink, white, or red flowers, hovering above the ground like pale mist. And…I swear I am not making this up…most heuchera seem to hang on to the majority of their leaves all winter long. Too good to be true? Granted, the leaves look a bit spent and crisp in December. But with nothing save a few golden grass plumes and dried sedum and euphorbia pods to look at after the new year, I’ll take what I can get.


Heuchera blooms

Heuchera bloom


You can find all sorts of new heuchera varieties at fancy garden stores for $10-15 apiece. (I’m all for supporting local businesses whenever possible.)  While it’s fun to spring for the occasional fancy cultivar (I particularly love “Amber Waves,” “Caramel,” and “Lime Rickey”), you can also find perfectly lovely coral bells at Home Depot and Lowe’s very often, sometimes for less than $10.

In the South, they are happiest in part shade, meaning they shouldn’t get more than 3-4 hours of direct sunlight (especially in the afternoon). When you plant them, keep in mind that over the years they can tend to “heave” out of the ground a bit (not sure why), so don’t plant them shallow.

For best effect, place heuchera underneath or next to something with brilliant, contrasting foliage: a red Japanese maple near chartreuse heuchera, for example, or purple heuchera next to a blue-green hosta. And they look gorgeous lining an informal garden path, like the DIY-flagstone walkway that winds into the yard from my back gate.

Heuchera runs riot in dappled shade

Heuchera runs riot in dappled shade

Red Japanese maple and chartreuse heuchera

Red Japanese maple and chartreuse heuchera

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I planted “Pistache” and “Southern Comfort” tonight, under the “Forest Pansy” redbud.

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