Burnett: Colourful world of ‘coral bells’

When I hear the name coral bells, I immediately think of my Grandma Henderson.

When I hear the name coral bells, I immediately think of my Grandma Henderson.

I have a clear memory of her pulling the couch grass growing up through her border sporting this popular plant which has graced the gardens of plant lovers since it was first introduced in 1656.

The coral bells of today, however, are not the same as those enjoyed by our grandparents.

Over the past 20 or 30 years, there have been so many new introductions I have indeed lost count.

The botanical name for coral bells is Heuchera  and in the 1914 edition of the Twentieth Century Gardener, it had a mere mention as Heuchera sanguinea, 1.5 feet tall with pink flowers in summer; several hybrids available. In the 1949 edition of the “Encyclopedia of gardening” it has a somewhat larger presence with five species listed and a mention of several pretty varieties available in the trade.

When I began my career in the late 1960s, I remember only carrying a few varieties in our garden centre and most of these were with the traditional green foliage and tiny coral pink bell shaped flowers on upright stems to about 1.5 feet.

About 20 years ago I attended a workshop in Vernon conducted by Grahame Ware, a freelance writer and broadcaster for Canadian radio, television, and print media. Grahame owns and operates a wonderful nursery called Owl and Stump rare plants near Vernon and has co-written a book called Heucheras and Heucherellas: Coral Bells and Foamy Bells.

It was at his workshop Grahame forecasted the explosion of Huechera varieties about to happen and indeed it did.

We now have a selection of foliar colour ranging from almost black to peach pink. I have five varieties of different species in my garden and I’m not through collecting by a long shot. Even the names are exciting and descriptive.

My selection consisting of Amber Waves, Palace Purple, Georgia Peach, Black Currant and Key Lime will soon be joined by varieties such as Plum Royale and Blackout.

Most of my plants look good all winter and with a little spring cleanup they soon burst into a show of fresh new foliage.

I like planting Heuchera in groups of three or if there is room a drift of several plants of the same variety. Today the lowly coral bells have a much larger presence in the garden encyclopedias such as the 2003 edition of Taylors Encyclopedia of Garden Plants with dozens of species and varieties listed. Heuchera is a plant you can rely upon to give your garden interest and colour all year long.

This week it’s 10 years since I started writing this column. My how time flies when you’re having fun.

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