Master Gardener: Coral bells

Coral Bells (Heuchera Spp.) may not be new to you. You may have “Palace Purple”, a well-loved variety that looks great in a shade garden with its’ large burgundy leaves. But there is more to this family of plants as plant breeders and hybridizers have been very busy adding new cultivars each year. Some have very pretty flowers and exciting new foliage.

Your grandmother’s coral bells had plain, flat green leaves. Now, in addition to burgundy leaves, you can find green with red veins or white marbling, chartreuse, bright gold, peachy orange or even brown leaves. Some even have a silver sheen on the surface that adds sparkle. Not only colored leaves, but many have textured leaves, ruffles edges or another color on the underside.

Coral Bells thrive in shade gardens and sunny spots alike. This usually is not a large plant, but it is showy with a nice dense mound of foliage that grows 12 to 18 inches tall. Most plants have loose, airy stems of flowers that can be 2 feet tall above the foliage. Coral Bells begin blooming in early June and don’t stop until the end of August. To prolong the bloom season dead-heading is suggested. If you pull off a tiny plant with the flower stem, just replant.

Like most perennials, coral bells need to be planted in the right location in your garden and do best with at least a couple hours of afternoon shade. Planted in too much sun the foliage can scorch or even die back. Note: some newer cultivars can be planted in full sun. Always check the label when purchasing. The plants are evergreen, but winter can make the leaves look ragged, so in spring cut away the old foliage (make sure not to cut off the crown in the center). New leaves will quickly fill in.

If you grow coral bells in too much shade you may have a fungus problem. Rabbits and deer also like to shear the plant to the ground. Those are the main problems in growing this plant. Although after a Minnesota winter and the freeze-thaw cycle they could be pushed out of their planting spot (frost heave). But you can just press the plant back in place.

After 3 to 5 years, you may notice that there are fewer flowers and the mounds lose vigor. The plant is telling you it needs to be divided. Dig the plant out and gently break the clump apart. You can see new crowns forming and these can be the start to your new plant. You can discard any weak portions. Keep new division well watered for a week or two until they establish a new root system.

It’s hard to think of a place coral bells won’t fit in. They’re at home in woodlands, rock gardens, containers, borders and as ground covers. Coral bells make wonderful edging plants and really put on a show when planted in groups. The foliage color is great for playing up the colors of nearby flowers. Darker purple leaves can make yellow flowers glow. Butterscotch colored leaves even brings out the tones of simple green leaves of other plants. Whatever you call them, heuchera, coral bells or alumroot, they are native American perennials and could be at home in your garden. Coral Bells will even grow under a black walnut tree.