Holy H. Batman!

That’s ‘H’ for Heuchera – you know that indispensable foliage plant that comes in every colour of the rainbow?

I believe a garden plant should carry its weight throughout the season, from early spring through late fall – in other words they must be more than just a pretty face, I mean flower.  Plants with attractive foliage are the key here and Heuchera rules this realm – what other plant has leaves that can bring the same intensity of colour as flowers, and in a huge range of hues?

So let’s take a closer look at this genus of fabulous foliage perennials.

Foliage Favourites

There are more than 50 species in this genus, all or most of which are North American natives, and a few of which figure prominently in Heuchera breeding programs: H. americana, H. villosa, H. micrantha, H. sanguinea, H. cylindrica, and H. pubescens.  Each of these species brings unique characteristics to the table. Hence, countless crosses and back crosses have resulted in enormous variety in terms of leaf colour (pink, purple, plum, peach, lime, orange), leaf size (some are huge) and leaf shape (scalloped, pointy, curled, ruffled). I’m not even going to try to walk you through all of this – the folks at Terra Nova Nurseries, responsible for much of the current hybridizing craze, can show you so much better than I. Do check out their website. Be prepared though: if you garden in Calgary, you may experience a little ‘inner whine’ when you view some of the stunning images of their beautiful plants – we can’t grow’em like that here………sigh.

Charles Oliver of The Primrose Path and France’s Thierry Delabroye have also made significant contributions to the vast selection of new Heuchera cultivars.

The frenzied hybridizing that has produced hundreds of new cultivars since 1990, began with the discovery of Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ – originally determined to be a variant of H. micrantha, but later argued to be of H. villosa stock. It was awarded the Perennial Plant Association’s Plant of the Year in 1991 – since then of course, far superior dark-leaved cultivars have been developed, as well as many other unimaginable colours.

Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’. Photo: Marny Estep

Dark and rich foliage colours. Clockwise from top left: Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ (late summer colour), Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet’, Heuchera ‘Plum Royale’, Heuchera ‘Bressingham Bronze’ and Heuchera ‘Prince’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Warm and Bright foliage colours. Clockwise from top left: Heuchera ‘Pinot Gris’, Heuchera ‘Mahogany’, Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’ (early summer colour), Heuchera ‘Tiramisu’ and Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Flowers Too

Heuchera ‘Bressingham Hybrid’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Flower characteristics have also been the focus of various breeding programs – in fact well before Heuchera was deemed a desirable foliage perennial, Alan Bloom of Blooms of Bressingham had been working to improve the original coral bells, with their racemes of tiny, coral-coloured bells (Heuchera sanguinea). He began selecting for larger, brighter coloured florets. ‘Bressingham Hybrid’ was one of his early successes followed by numerous others –  ‘Red Spangles’, ‘Rosemary Bloom’ and ‘Bridget Bloom’ to name a few.

Some Like it Hot

In the early years, Heuchera was marketed as a shade perennial – indeed many nurseries still display it in their Shade Perennials section. However, many cultivars actually present better colour in half, if not full sun.

How much sun or shade a particular cultivar can tolerate is partly determined by geography – our prairie summers are generally hot and fairly dry, but not nearly as hot and dry as Las Vegas. So a Heuchera planted in full sun in Calgary may do just fine, but could fry in the hot sun of the Mojave Desert.

In addition, the particular species of Heuchera will determine its heat and sun tolerance, as well as its cold hardiness. Species that are native to subtropical regions will be more tolerant of high heat and humidity, even thriving in such conditions. Heuchera villosa, a native of the subtropical southeastern United States, is one such species. Heuchera americana on the other hand, is native to more northern climes hence prefers cooler drier conditions.

Some Have it All

It used to be that you could purchase Heuchera with colourful foliage and nondescript flowers, or you could buy Heuchera with brightly coloured flowers and pretty, but nondescript, foliage. However, with complex hybridizing using numerous parent species, it’s now possible to have both – showy foliage and showy flowers. Terra Nova’s City Series boasts some great examples of this.  And of course the hybrids will retain the climactic preferences of their parentage, so if there is villosa, americana and pubescens species in their make-up, they will be drought tolerant, heat & humidity tolerant and cold hardy. Indeed some really do have it all!

Left: Heuchera ‘Havana’ from Terra Nova’s City Series has bright lime green foliage and large, plentiful, bright coral-pink florets. Photo: Sue Gaviller
Right: Heuchera ‘Cherries Jubilee’, also from Terra Nova Nurseries, has dark burgundy foliage and bright coral-red flowers. Photo: Pat Gaviller

…….And Then Some

Heuchera is parent to one of the few instances of intergeneric hybridization in horticulture – it has been crossed with Tiarella to produce the lovely Heucherella.  Because Tiarella is a true shade plant, adding this to the mix means better colour retention in shady locations. Case in point : Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’, a relatively new introduction which I used in some shade containers for a client – the pink-splashed purple leaves maintained good colour saturation all season.

Heucherella ‘Berry Fizz’ with Heuchera ‘Havana’ make a lovely container arrangement in this client’s shady front entryway. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Design Value

The upshot of all this is that the hardy Heuchera has (or should) become an indispensible addition to gardens around the globe, and for good reason. If we look at it in light of our recent discussions on Unity, we see that this perennial, because of its colourful foliage, can provide colour repetition all season long, not just when in bloom. Even if we’re using one of the early hybrids grown just for its flowers, these Heuchera can still provide an extended period of colour repetition because they’re very long blooming – cultivars chosen for flowers alone are most effective when massed so the impact is more significant.

This mass of Heuchera flowers makes a lovely early summer statement. Photo: Pat Gaviller

As well, the decidedly coarse texture of this genus is useful for creating moments of emphasis or dominance – keep in mind though, that because the overall plant size isn’t very large, dominance is better achieved using a small group rather than a single specimen. The landscape-size selections, like Terra Nova’s Marmalade Series are the only cultivars large enough to be dominant on their own. Utilizing Heuchera in containers is another way they can contribute to dominance in the landscape, i.e. a focal point. Bear in mind too, especially with the brightly hued foliage selections, that you don’t want to go overboard with this perennial – too much bright colour or coarse texture can create competition for dominance which results in visual tension.

Heuchera can bring real pizzaz to container plantings – just imagine any one of these beautiful arrangements as a stunning focal point in your garden. Photos courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Well, what else can I say – what else is there to say? This fabulous foliage perennial speaks for itself – why not let a Heuchera talk to you?

Til next time,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

4 comments on “Holy H. Batman!

  1. RJP says:

    Not much else to say, another plant quite worthy of feature – I’m sold! (I admit I’m an easy sell as I am climbing a steep learning curve.). Keep these coming, I look forward to the variety of design principles and mix of plant topics, I pick up much needed information from the latter and enjoy them all.
    (I do like the idea of alternatives to the color pink, and am able to find this even when it is featured in your articles.)

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi Ralph,

      So you’re an easy sell eh? Hope your kids don’t know this (“Dad the 2013 Mustang V6 Premium Convertible is the best car there is – safe, reliable, comfortable. We need one”)

      Anyway, I’m always pleased to hear that you enjoy reading my posts as much as I enjoy writing them and that you’re open to new learning. One couldn’t ask for a better reader or follower. Thanks!


  2. Anton says:

    I found this blog very helpfull, thank you. I am always looking for good colour in ground cover and have been thinking of Heuchera. Another interesting one which led me to look into Heuchera when I discovered it was tolerant of heat and humidity is Ajuga. I always assumed Heuchera wouldn’t take our heat and humidity so Im delighted some can. Problem is when buying them they dont give you the plants background on the label so you never know what its parentage is.

    Also what happens to them in winter? Or in our case the cool dry season? Are they evergreen like Ajuga?

    Im full of ideas now thanks.


    ps. (I find your reminders of design principle very helpfull too, all too often we get caught up in the craze for novelty the new and forget what we are looking for and what will work back home in fact, ending up with a jumbled collection rather than a garden (: )

    • Hi Anton,

      Glad to hear you’re finding the blog helpful. I use Ajuga too – great carpeting effect as groundcover. I particularly like the cultivar ‘Catlin’s Giant’ which has larger leaves, taller flower spikes and is more sun tolerant than the species.

      As for the parentage of specific Heuchera, check out the websites of Terra Nova Nurseries, Proven Winners, and Primrose Path. All are Heuchera breeders and responsible for the vast majority of Heuchera cultivars on the market. Click on a specific cultivar and you’ll find lots of info, including the species that went into in their breeding.

      Some cultivars are indeed evergreen, although not in my climate (way too cold in the winter) – again this should be indicated in the info on the websites.

      Hope this helps and thanks for reading,


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