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    Consider the Coral Bells

    By By Leonard Perry
    October 17, 2012, 9:22:39 AM EDT

    This genus of perennials has seen many new introductions over the last couple of decades. These include combinations of many foliage colors, leaf shapes, and flower colors. Coral bells are generally thought of for part shade as in afternoon, and moist soils. Yet in northern gardens they can be grown in full sun, if in a loam soil that stays moist. Moist, not wet, is the key. Wet soils, or an unusually rainy season, may cause them to rot. In my own garden, I have found them to tolerate dry conditions and drought better than wet, and drought for long periods once established.

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    In some sites, such as heavy soils in which plants heave out of the ground in late winter, you may need to top dress around the plants in spring with soil or compost. Their stems may become woody over three to four years. Top dress soil around these as well, or lift plants in spring, dividing off and replanting newer young offshoots. In many gardens though, such as my own, I find plants will live for years and be pest-resistant and low maintenance. Coral bells are generally not eaten by deer and small mammals, but if so, use fencing or repellent sprays. They may get mildew under the right conditions, but this seldom causes lasting harm. The only main pest you may encounter are the small, c-shaped white grubs of the strawberry or black vine weevils. These feed on roots in summer, the result being plants falling over at the base. Treat adults with appropriate sprays in early summer, and the grubs in fall with either boiling water around roots of dead plants, or beneficial nematodes. Coral bells (Heuchera) are in saxifrage family, related to foamflowers and rock garden saxifrages. Although there are about 55 species native to North America, what you find for sale are selections of five main species (americana, cylindrica, micrantha, sanguinea, villosa), but more generally are hybrids among them. These hybrids include many popular ones from the French breeder Thierry Delabroye of the latter species, named for the soft “villous” hairy leaves. Coral bells generally form mounds of leaves less than a foot high and across. Wiry stems above the foliage, up to two feet high, in summer bear clusters of many small bell-shaped flowers. These may be variations of white, pink, or red. The stems generally are weak and may topple with wind. Ones with the thickest stems that remain upright include 'Raspberry Regal' and ‘Silver Lode’. One of my favorites—Petite Pearl Fairy— forms a compact mound, only about 8 to 10 inches high and wide, with pink flowers only slightly above the small leaves. The leaves of coral bells are their main attraction, and difference among the many cultivars (cultivated varieties). They are generally maple- to heart-shaped, with lobed, wavy, or entire (plain, not cut or dissected) margins. Leaves may have variously colored veins, mottling, or streaks. Several have different colored undersides such as the popular ‘Caramel’ with peach-orange tops and reddish bottoms to leaves. Older cultivars were mainly green. Newer green-leaved cultivars may have silver veins, mottling, or streaks. Many newer cultivars have leaves in colors of purple to almost black, brown, gold or amber, orange, or red. These may be solid colors, or have variously colored patterns. One of the first of these to be developed was the golden ‘Amber Waves’ in 2000. In recent Vermont trials of over 90 coralbells (perrysperennials.info/Heuchera0612.pdf), 32 were rated for at least 3 years (USDA zone 4, or -20 to -30F average winter minimum). The very best of these to date include ‘Blackout’ or ‘Dark Secret’ with shiny purple leaves, ‘Frosted Violet’ with light purple leaves and darker veins, ‘Mocha’ with greenish purple leaves, and ‘Silver Lode’ with silvery leaves. In addition, there are 18 in these trials that died after 2 years of trials, including some with pastel leaves such as the lime green ‘Electric Lime’, the peach colored ‘Georgia Peach’, the reddish ‘Miracle’ with green leaf margins, or the orange-green ‘Tiramisu’. During the last half of the 1990's, as part of their extensive perennial trials, the Chicago Botanic Garden (USDA zone 5, or -10 to -20F average winter minimum) evaluated over 60 selections of coralbells with results online (www.chicagobotanic.org/research/plant_evaluation). Their top recommendations with the best habit, healthy foliage, many flowers, and hardy, included 'Bressingham Bronze', 'Cappuccino', 'Molly Bush', 'Montrose Ruby', 'Palace Purple', and 'White Cloud'. 'Palace Purple' was one of the first purple cultivars, first sold in 1980, and named a Perennial Plant of the Year in 1991 by the Perennial Plant Association. It was a selection of one species (villosa) while the silvery ‘Dale’s Strain’, selected by Pennsylvania nurseryman Dale Hendricks in the same period, represents another species (americana). 'Molly Bush', another older variety named by a former nurseryman in North Carolina for his daughter, is actually a darker selection of 'Palace Purple'. In 2001 it won the prestigious Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticulture Society in Britain. So although new selections are being released each year, don't overlook some of these older ones which are still available and good performers.

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