Foliage divas

New hybrids of heucheras offer year-round leaf colour in shades of purple, chartreuse, orange and raspberry.

Credit: Stuart McCall

Heucheras are making a big splash, with new hybrids offering year-round leaf colour in shades of purple, chartreuse, orange and raspberry

We need a new common name for Heuchera. Coral bells just doesn’t do these versatile plants justice anymore. It’s a name they acquired when we were all focusing on flowers, and it aptly describes the panicles of bright little bells that rise on wiry stems above the leaves of the native species in May and June.

But we’ve moved on. We’ve come to appreciate the contribution foliage can make to the garden, which can be as dramatic as flowers and is often much longer lasting. This is where heucheras have really come into their own, with new hybrids offering year-round leaf colour in shades of purple, chartreuse, orange and raspberry, some of them beautifully embroidered with silver or inky black veins.

The first of these foliage divas to make a splash was Heuchera micrantha var. diversifolia ‘Palace Purple’, which was honoured with the title of 1991 Plant of the Year by the U.S.-based Perennial Plant Association. With its sultry leaves curling back to show their vivid magenta undersides, it is still one of the most popular in this colour range. Unfortunately, the original clone was muddled up with seed-grown offspring and some of the original consistency was lost. The good news is that there is now a bevy of similar varieties, ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ being perhaps the most readily available. I’m partial to ‘Purple Petticoats’, which has heavily crimped and curled edges and holds its burgundy and neon-pink leaves clear of the ground. ‘Crimson Curls’ is similar. Unlike the first two, these don’t fade to rusty brown in full sun.

Another of my favourites is ‘Stormy Seas’, whose young leaves are the colour of grape juice, contrasting with older ones marbled in dark and light pewter grey. It makes a vigorous clump in short order and the attractive froth of cream flowers in summer is a bonus. For a more tropical effect, ‘Veil of Passion’PBR justifies its breathless name by combining dark jacquard leaves with rich coral flowers on slender stems. The most voluptuous leaves of all belong to ‘Velvet Night’, so soft and rich that you want to reach out and stroke it. However, I do find it more temperamental than most, inclined to shrink rather than expand. It needs a shady position to avoid sun scorch on the delicate leaf edges.

Just as charming as the purple-leaved varieties are the best of the green selections, which also have the widest choice of patterns. ‘Green Spice’ is a silvery green with espresso in its veins. ‘Dale’s Strain’ is a glowing pewter traced over with purple ink. In my garden it looks stunning with the dark-stained leaves and pink flowers of Primula ‘Guinevere’ and the pale-yellow and bronze chalices of a miniature tulip, Tulipa batalinii ‘Bright Gem’.

For a lighter mood, variegated H. sanguinea ‘Snow Storm’ wears a party dress of pistachio and cream, adding shrimp-pink highlights that exactly match its pretty flowers as the season progresses. A plant that I bought under the name of ‘Snow Angel’ seems to be identical. The foliage looks good, if a bit dishevelled, all through winter when the cream tones dominate.

Although they lack the decorative veining, ‘Lime Rickey’ and ‘Key Lime Pie’ are as sharp and crisp as their names suggest. ‘Lime Rickey’ has unusually stiff leaves with jagged edges like umbrellas blown inside out. Either would sit happily at the feet of tropical plants, accenting their vivid flowers, but let the taller plants shade these heucheras from afternoon sun or the leaves will lose their freshness.

Among a bevy of new and unusual shades recently introduced, H. americana ‘Garnet’ is a muted rosewood with olive edges and grey undersides, subtle but effective. As for ‘Amber Waves’, its curious colouring caused comment when it appeared, not all of it positive. Depending on your viewpoint, its mustard leaves, puce pink on the reverse, look stunning or sickly. My initial reaction was reserved, but after seeing it en masse, especially towards the end of summer when the foliage deepens to burnt orange, I was hooked. Unfortunately, it isn’t a vigorous plant, and I am looking forward to acquiring ‘Marmalade’, which is not only richer in colour but appears to be stronger in every way. New introductions in pale hues include ‘Peach Melba’ and ‘Crème Brûlée’. These shade lovers will need careful placing if they are not to look anemic. Try them with Actaea simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ and the reddish new fronds of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora).

With such a crowd of colourful offspring competing for notice, the species heucheras have become harder to find, a pity since they are natives of our continent. The most likely one you’ll come across is H. americana, the original coral bells with pleasant, dark-green leaves and warm-pink flowers attractive to hummingbirds.

H. cylindrica, though hard to find as a plant, is available as seed from VanDusen Botanical Garden ( A particularly hardy denizen of the interior slopes of B.C. and Washington, it relishes poor, gravelly sites such as riverbanks and scree as long as it gets adequate moisture. The rounded, hairy leaves that give the plant its name are nothing special, but they are evergreen and the small clusters of cream flowers atop long stalks are charming. In the autumn landscape, the drying seedheads, which resemble ears of wheat, can be striking, especially if planted in large drifts.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Heuchera hybrids – zone 5 • H. cylindrica – zone 4 • H. sanguinea – zone 6 • x Heucherella – zone 5 • Tiarella hybrids – zone 6 • Tiarella cordifolia – zone 3 • Tolmiea menziesii – zone 7

Christine Allen shares her Langley farm with sheep, chickens, ducks and as many plants as she can jam
into her rambling garden.