CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the benefits of writing a gardening column is that I can take the time to research plants that I like to see if they are appropriate for my garden.
I extended a shady bed last year and planted a couple of unusual hostas in there, but the deer munched them into oblivion. Looking for an alternative, I turned to heuchera.
Pronounced HEW-ker-a, these are not your mother's coral bells, as they are also known. First named for Johann Heinrich von Heucher, an 18th-century professor of medicine and botanist at Wittenberg, Germany, these little beauties have been around for a long time.
There are nearly 300 known varieties of heuchera, also known as alum root. In general, they grow to about 18 inches tall and around 18 inches wide. They prefer shade, although some do well in sun.
They have become quite popular recently, as many new cultivars are springing up with names like Berry Smoothie, Rave On, Plum Royale, Southern Comfort, Marmalade, Alabama Sunrise, Peach Flambe, Golden Zebra and Silver Scrolls, to name just a few.
As I was writing this piece, my Horticulture magazine came in the mail with a wonderful article about heuchera. The author, Pam Baggett, raved about the foliage of the plants and the incorporation of Southeastern U.S. native Heuchera villosa into breeding lines, which yielded plants with greatly increased tolerance to hot weather. They do need to be watered in dry times, as they prefer moist conditions.
A shallow-rooted plant, they will heave in the winter if there is a lot of freeze/thaw action. Give them a good layer of mulch in early fall, but don't put mulch on the crown of the plant as it will rot. I put them near the house, where they are protected from huge, quick temperature swings. A lacy dogwood gives them a bit of shade, but they get morning sun.
I purchased a couple of Lime Rickey plants and I'm on the hunt for more.
Horticulture magazine warns that heucheras are not naturally long-lived plants, but regular division will keep them prospering.
"When clumps begin to grow woody at the base, lift and divide them, replanting the most vigorous portions. Bury the woody part of each division, but don't cover the crown," the article advises.