Plant of the Week: Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

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Basic information about Heuchera/Coral Bells. Includes Origin, Care and Maintenance, Common Pests & Diseases, Interesting Facts & Uses, and Garden Design Tips.

Heuchera Origin

H. ‘Fire Alarm’

The botanical name, Heuchera, was named by Linnaeus after his friend, a German physician, Johann Heinrich von Heucher, in the 1600s.

This plant has 2 common names, Coral bells and Alumroot. Coral bells is a reference to the small, bell-shaped flowers that are often present in shades of white, pink and red. Alumroot refers to the root, which is used in medicine and has a astringent taste.

All species in the Heuchera genus are native to North America.

Heuchera Care and Maintenance

Light

Soft shade seems to be the best exposure for Heucheras (Coral Bells or Alum Root), although some (such as the darker-leafed varieties) can tolerate a range of full shade to full sun. Morning sun is preferred to hot afternoon sun. In general, Coral Bells with lighter green or white toned leaves prefer shadier locations to prevent burning, while deeper purple and red tones can withstand sunnier locations. It is best to check the plant description for a particular variety in order to locate a spot in your garden with the correct amount of light.

Soil

Because Coral Bells are naturally found on cliffs or slopes, they need well-drained soil that is rich in humus and feels soft and crumbly. It may be necessary to amend soil by adding in compost, rotted manure, chopped leaves, or other organic material. Organic matter will provide food for the plant as it decays, but just as importantly, it will add air pockets to the soil so the roots get oxygen. It is best to avoid heavy, wet soils. Many reports say heuchera can withstand a range of pH, but a slightly acidic 5.8-6.3 soil is preferred.

To Plant

Dig a planting hole twice as wide and deep as the rootball and partially fill it back in with loosened soil. This will help the Heuchera’s fibrous root system to expand. Gently massage the rootball and plant at a height so the crown sits just at or slightly above the soil line. Heucheras like well-drained locations with rich soil, so poor soil should be amended with organic matter before planting. As the organic matter decays, not only will food be provided for the plant, but air pockets will develop within the soil, allowing oxygen into the roots. In order to avoid diseases like crown rot, take care not to bury the crown and allow enough room around the plant for air to circulate. A layer of mulch can be added to prevent weeds and retain moisture. Don’t forget to water!

Water

Watering is often overlooked as one of the most difficult aspects of gardening and frequently, plants suffer from too much water rather than too little.

Many Heuchera originate from sloped habitats, and although they need moisture it is even more important that they have good drainage. Too much water in the soil can drown your plant! Rather than watering on a fixed schedule, take the weather conditions into consideration and feel the soil. Also, be aware that wilting can occur not only from too little water, but also too much.

Fertilizer

Heuchera is not a heavy feeder and has low fertilizer requirements. Slow release or half-strength application is recommended to prevent damaging the Heuchera. A heavy dose of fertilizer leads to lush growth which inhibits flowering, plus it creates plants that require more water and then start demanding extra food to support its growth!

Winter

These plants often require extra protection in Northern gardens to survive the winters. They would like a thick layer of winter mulch (leaves, straw, etc) that is insulating and easy to remove in spring. Keeping the leaves on the plant through winter is also helpful.

See our Guide to Overwintering Perennials for step by step information!

Heuchera can be pruned in early spring to keep it neat, and deadheading during the season can encourage rebloom. This plant is susceptible to frost heaving, where its crown will slowly rise out of the ground. You can sprinkle it with soil to gently cover the crown, or lift and divide the plant (if it’s been 3-4 years). Replant slightly deeper if planting in the same hole.

In milder climates, Heuchera are evergreen, providing wonderful winter interest in the garden. The old and damaged foliage should still be removed in spring to allow new shoots to emerge.

Here’s a video demonstrating how to cut back your Heucheras to keep your garden neat and tidy!

Heuchera Divisions

Heucheras need to be divided when the center becomes woody and the growth slows down, which usually happens every 3-5 years. In some varieties, the crown will also raise up requiring it to be reset into the ground. It’s best to divide heucheras in the spring to allow the plant to recover and develop a strong root system before winter. The plant should be dug up with a sterile tool or trowel and gently pulled apart. The rosettes should be divided and replanted with the crown at ground level.

Common Pests and Diseases

Heuchera (Coral Bells or Alum Root) deserve a spot in every garden simply for the fact that they suffer from few pests or diseases.

In some cases, correctly identifying a Coral Bells disease problem is difficult. Protect your garden from fungal diseases by using sterile tools, not overwatering, and allowing for light and air circulation. Although Coral Bells are considered deer resistant, it is possible for deer or other animals to be disturbing your garden. If a problem persists, you can consider relocating the plant.

Root Weevils

Root weevils are perhaps the most challenging pest Coral Bells face. Their presence is often marked by notched leaves on azalea or rhododendron, a sign of adult beetles munching on the foliage. However, it is the larvae that cause the worst damage. The larvae hatch in late winter or early spring, and as they emerge they eat through the succulent stems and roots. In bad situations, you may see the entire crown decimated. They can be treated by a combination of drenching in the fall, and spraying pyrethroids (insecticide) in the spring. There are also successful reports of using predatory nematodes, but the soil must be at least 60F. An alternative, friendly method to try is dousing the plant with hot water during the winter or early spring – this kills the larvae and is only a shock to the plant.

There are many types of root weevils and it may help to identify what you’re battling. Black vine weevils (Otiorhynchus sulcatus) are commonly found in the East, and strawberry root weevil (Otiorhynchus ovatus) is seen in the West.

Nematodes

Nematodes tend to be more of a problem in warmer, southern climates. They are difficult to eradicate, and prevention is often the best tool. Be careful not to place Coral Bells next to other infected plants (as nematodes can move between species) and remember to use sterile tools.

Fungus

As with many garden plants, Coral Bells can suffer from fungus if they have too much shade and water, and not enough airflow. A fungus will spread in wet weather, especially if it is hot and humid. If you suspect that your Coral Bells are getting too much moisture, it is a good idea to let plants dry out a bit between waterings. There are many safe fungicides on the market that can help with a fungus problem as well.

Rust

Heuchera rust is a fungal disease more problematic in greenhouses than in gardens, and is associated with cooler temperatures in the spring. It can be identified by orange/brown pustules on the bottoms of the leaves.

Interesting Facts and Uses

H. ‘Delta Dawn’

This plant is a member of the Saxifragaceae, a family that includes other beloved shade plants like Astilbe, Bergenia, and Tiarella, and is often hybridized with Tiarella to make the Heucherellas.

Heuchera flowers and foliage can be cut for use in floral arrangements, and have been used in White House arrangements and featured on the cover of Martha Stewart’s magazine.

The flowers last about a week in a vase, the foliage a month or more.

Long-lasting Heuchera flowers attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees, making them an excellent choice for a pollinator-friendly garden.

Their origin is North America, so they are welcome in native gardens as well.

H. ‘Forever Purple’

Leaves were traditionally limited to shades of green and/or burgundy, but breakthroughs in breeding have led to a wide variety of pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and almost black foliage colors in Heuchera. Leaf sizes and shapes as well as floral colors have also been extensively improved.

Some Heuchera go through (sometimes very dramatic) seasonal color changes.

A few species in this genus were used by Native American peoples for medicine and by European peoples after the discovery of America, mostly related to the astringent properties of the root.

Garden Design Tips

Coral Bells’ low, mounding form makes them a good plant for ground covers, borders/paths, rock gardens, woodland areas, and containers.

Their colorful blooms, long-lasting foliage, interesting textures, and variety of leaf shapes and sizes contrast and complement a wide variety of other shade perennials.

They do well in a garden with hosta, Astilbe, Tiarella, Brunnera, Astrantia, Aruncus, Epimediums, Aquilegia, Ajuga, Artemisia, Stachys, and many others.

Heuchera have so many colors and texture combinations they also contrast and complement each other! Planting a trio of Heuchera is a beautiful way to take advantage of this. Some particularly lovely combinations are as follows:

For calmer, gently-blended colors, try ‘Berry Smoothie’, ‘Georgia Peach’, and ‘Ginger Ale’.

Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’Heuchera ‘Georgia Peach’Heuchera ‘Ginger Ale’

For striking, dramatic colors, try ‘Electra’, ‘Obsidian’, and ‘Shanghai’.

Heuchera ‘Electra’Heuchera ‘Obsidian’Heuchera ‘Shanghai’

These can be purchased individually at our Buy Heuchera Page.

Our staff also frequently offer bundles and trios of Heuchera selected for their complementary characteristics; they can be found on our website’s Bundles Page.

More Heuchera Information

Here are some videos displaying Heuchera (Coral Bells) in various combinations and colors.

Marty DeHart of Hewitt Garden and Design Center showcases the color foliage of various Coral Bells (Heucheras).

Hampton Court 2010 – Vicky and Richard Fox of Plantagogo Nursery in Crewe, Cheshire in the UK, show their beautiful national collection of Coral Bells and Heucherellas.

A video filmed at Terra Nova – Bring year-round color and foliage to your garden with new and old Heuchera favorites!

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Heuchera

For the last few years, coral bells (botanical name Heuchera, sometimes referred to commonly as alumroot) have become my go-to plant for adding color and texture to the garden.

I find ways to add it to almost every flower bed or container I work on, and am consistently satisfied with the final result. More importantly, my clients are happy too!

I’ll admit, at first it was hard for me to get excited about coral bells. I wasn’t a fan of plants with foliage as their main draw. But I’ve come around, and started to love the steady and reliable performance of these plants.

Photo by Matt Suwak.

When I change out container material for clients, they often want to start with all fresh plants, so I’ve accumulated a small army of alumroot to call my own. I’ve placed multiple varieties in contrasting conditions, and have learned a lot about what makes coral bells happy.

And after reading this, you will, too!

Best Uses

The primary appeal of coral bells is its foliage. Most varieties are a deep purple or burgundy, but colors ranging from red to lime green are available too.

Heuchera have small bunches of flowers that grow on a long stalk, or thyrse.

These flowers are delicate and colorful, but are not very flashy. And while they can be lovely and add a nice accent to the plant, the relative insignificance of the flowers allows the foliage to really stand out on its own.

When you’ve got a location that’s a bit dry and hot, alumroot is a reliable go-to plant to fill areas in, and it’s excellent for xeriscaping and waterwise gardening.

A nice accent to varied greens and silver dusty miller. Photo by Matt Suwak.

Most Heuchera will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9 and thrive in that middle ground of zone 5-7. However, some are capable of growing as far north as zone 3 or as far south as zone 11. I’ve seen Heuchera in upstate New York look as happy and healthy as the plants in Florida and Texas!

I’ve gone an entire summer without watering a particularly dry patch of my garden just to see how different plants thrived, and the coral bells looked as healthy as they did on the day I put them in the ground.

Popping coral bells into your containers is another smart choice. They grow well in containers and are happy to mingle with other plants. The variety of colors available makes Heuchera an easy complement to almost any design.

Full Sun or No Sun, This Plant Doesn’t Care!

I’m confident plopping my coral bells into pretty much any lighting condition.

They are considered shade plants and seem to do their best with about 4-6 hours of sunlight a day, but I’ve worked with them in full-sun conditions and they are fine and dandy.

Photo by Matt Suwak.

You should check each cultivar to learn about its preferred conditions. But in general, the darker colored coral bells can withstand plenty of sunlight while the lighter-hued varieties prefer the shade.

Like most plants, Heuchera of all types prefer some shade from the hottest afternoon sunlight, so keep this in mind when laying out your planting.

Time for a Drink

In my experience, alumroot can go weeks without a drop of water and still look great. Of course, when they get that water they’re much happier, and look far healthier than their drought-stricken kin.

Most folks I’ve worked with indicate that coral bells prefer consistently moist soil (we’ll talk about soil requirements in more detail next), and that makes this plant a great partner of part-sun lovers like astilbe and hosta.

I use a soaker hose covered with a layer of mulch for watering most garden beds… except that experimental dry patch that I have!

I find that about 1 inch of rain a week is plenty for my shade-loving and moisture-savoring plants like Heuchera. If the weather is especially hot or my coral bells are in full sun, I’ll turn on the soaker hose for about 30 minutes.

Dark foliage adds a nice accent to brighter flowers like ‘Stella D’oro’ daylilies. Photo by Matt Suwak.

Now, I’ve also planted Heuchera in conditions where they’ll never get watered, and they survive just fine. When I put together containers for clients who want nothing to do with a hose, I always use coral bells because the plants tolerate drought conditions so well.

Just remember, they’ll be happier and stronger with the right amount of water… but if you go away on vacation, you don’t need to worry about your Heuchera!

The Best Soil

In the wild, most alumroots grow in a woodland setting, often taking root in crevices and steep slopes that offer good drainage. To make your plants happy, try to replicate their preferred natural environment as best you can!

Photo by Matt Suwak.

That starts with soil that’s nutritious and full of organic matter. A twice-yearly composting is all you need to support Heuchera, as far as fertilization is concerned.

However, soil that is too heavy and full of clay would benefit from amendments like sand and larger quantities of compost before planting. Coral bells do not do well in heavy, dense soil.

Planting Tips

Because their roots tend to be shallow and fibrous, you don’t need to plant your alumroot too deeply when you buy potted plants. It’s rare to find a pot-bound plant, but if you do, don’t think twice about ripping as much as half of its roots off to fit that plant into the hole.

Photo by Matt Suwak.

That may seem extreme, but I plant hundreds of these a year, and they all respond well to this harsh handling!

If you’re planting small clumps from mature plants, you’ll have a tougher time getting them to take root – unless they have ample roots to begin with. I’ll throw mine into a spare one-gallon plant container and let them take root in a more controlled environment before putting them into the garden.

Show Me the Seeds!

If you are sowing seeds, you’ll have the best luck starting them inside before planting outdoors.

Fill a seed tray with 1 part seed starting mix combined with 1 part perlite, and moisten the mixture with water so it will be easier to work with.

Be stingy when you sprinkle the seeds over the surface of the filled tray – Heuchera pods contain TONS of very tiny seeds! – but don’t cover them with soil, because they need light to germinate.

A light misting of water is enough to settle them into place to finish the job. Seeds typically germinate in about two weeks.

Because they send out roots quickly, you should thin and transplant your seedlings as soon as they develop a second set of leaves, to avoid damaging the lengthy roots during planting. Don’t worry, they’re pretty darn tough and can handle this!

Flowers are very tiny on these plants, and pods are packed with seeds. Photo by Matt Suwak.

If you’re of the set-it-and-forget-it perspective, you can try directly sowing your seeds in the garden during the fall. Enough should survive the cold winter and start sprouting in the spring to make your efforts worthwhile.

I’ve only ever grown heuchera from seed indoors in a seed tray, so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of direct sowing!

Heuchera is not true to seed, so planting this way will often result in mature plants of different colors than the parent. But, who doesn’t like a nice surprise now and again?

Collect seeds from an alumroot that you’ve grown in the garden by carefully removing the flower stalks when the flowers are dry, but before the pods open. Alternatively, you could buy seeds (we’ll provide more info on some options available for purchase below).

Heuchera Heave, Dividing Plants, and Removing Leaves

So, you’ve chosen your location, the perfect soil is in place, and you’ve gotten a jump on good watering practices.

On that note, we should talk about the tendency of these plants to “heave” in the wintertime in cooler climates.

When the ground freezes and thaws, it has a tendency to push alumroot from the ground, exposing its crown and making the plant look a little funky.

Photo by Matt Suwak.

The solution is simple: if this happens, dig a new hole and place your plant back into place when the soil is workable.

Keep the leaves in place rather than pruning over the winter, to add a little bit of extra frost protection in case of heaving.

When your alumroot gets a little too leggy after a few years, you can easily divide the plant. I like to use my soil knife for precision, but you could also pull clumps of your Heuchera out with your bare (or gloved) hands after loosening the surrounding earth with a spade, and start them fresh in the soil.

Pests, Problems, and Diseases

I’ve run into few issues with these plants in my clients’ gardens, but they are prone to a few problems:

Foremost among those issues is fungal infection. These infections can include rust (rare in the garden but common in greenhouses) and general fungal/mold conditions.

The best solution here is to ensure your plants have adequate airflow, good drainage, and aren’t getting too much moisture. When you water, do so around the base of plants rather than spraying water onto the leaves.

I personally prefer to use chemical sprays in the garden as infrequently as I can, and only when I absolutely need to, so I’ll let most fungal problems linger on until the weather dries up.

This practice requires a diligent, attentive eye on your plants! It also comes down to what you consider an acceptable loss in the garden.

A caramel hued Heuchera, freshly divided from its parent. Photo by Matt Suwak.

Frequent removal of damaged plant material will be required if you go the natural route, and sometimes dumping entire plants into the trash becomes necessary if the situation gets out of hand.

These are acceptable losses in my book, but if you aren’t of that persuasion, you’ll want to spray your plants diligently and regularly with that fungicide.

Weevils are the main pest to look out for, but these insects tend to produce cosmetic damage that doesn’t necessitate treatment. Nematodes can also be problematic for alumroot.

Recommended Cultivars (And Where to Buy Them)

I’m a sucker for the nearly black cultivars, a rare color in the garden that tends to evoke a lot of interest. But overall, I’ve never met a alumroot I didn’t like.

‘Plum Pudding in #1 Containers, available from Nature Hills

The ‘Plum Pudding’ cultivar is gorgeous – just look at the venation! I have more of this plant in my garden than any other variety.

It reaches a modest height of about 12 inches, and will tolerate pretty much any light condition you’ve got.

‘Palace Purple’ Coral Bells, available from Nature Hills Nursery

‘Palace Purple’ is another darker-leafed plant that I’ve seen in many gardens. Its muted, understated color is perfect as an accent to something like an ‘Elegans’ hosta.

‘Elegans’ Hostas in #1 Containers, available from Nature Hills

‘Caramel’ Coral Bells in #1 Containers, available from Nature Hills

This ‘Caramel’ variety is nice because it has a color that gets along with almost every other hue in the garden. It reaches a height of about 16 inches. These plants prefer a shadier locale than their darker-leafed cousins.

‘Georgia Peach’ Coral Bells, available from Nature Hills

If you want to match the lighter-hued leaves of ‘Caramel’ with that beautiful venation found in the ‘Plum Pudding,’ try the ‘George Peach.’ It reaches a height of up to 30 inches and is more of a statement plant than an accent.

‘Lime Rickey’ Coral Bells in 5-Inch Containers, available from Nature Hills

The much showier ‘Lime Rickey’ is a great pick for when you need something bright but not obnoxious. I’ll pair these with Creeping Jenny in containers!

500 ‘Melting Fire’ Seeds, available from True Leaf Market

The ‘Melting Fire’ variety is a fairly typical Heuchera, but it stands apart from its peers via the transformation of its foliage from fiery red to a deep purple.

1000 ‘Ruby Bells’ Seeds, available from True Leaf Market

‘Ruby Bells’ has green foliage, but gets its showy name from the deep red flowers that decorate the plant when in bloom. Just remember that alumroot seeds won’t always produce true replicas of the parent plant!

Until Next Time

Now you’re ready to dive into the wonderful world of alumroot, and add this excellent plant to your gardens and containers.

Photo by Matt Suwak.

Although alumroot generally prefers a shady location, it can thrive in any condition with the right care and attention. And for something a bit more exotic than coral bells, experiment with the hybrid “heucherella” a combination of Heuchera and Tiarella.

What combinations have you used coral bells in? Share your questions and stories with us in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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Photos by Matt Suwak © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via True Leaf Market, Nature Hills Nursery, and Miracle-Gro. Uncredited photos: . With additional writing and editing by Allison Sidhu.

About Matt Suwak

Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.

PLANT PROFILE:Obsidian Coralbells

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’ PP14,836

Description & Overview

Obsidian Coralbells are a top choice when dark foliage is desired in shade. Shiny, dark purple to black foliage holds its color all season. Cream bell-shaped flowers emerge in June, contrasting against the dark foliage. A great performer with a compact habit!

Core Characteristics

Wisconsin Native: No – Variety of North American Native USDA Hardiness Zone: to zone 4 Mature Height: 16-24 inches Mature Spread: 10-12 inches Growth Rate: Perennial Growth Form: Mounded, compact Light Requirements: Partial Shade Site Requirements: Prefers neutral to alkaline soil, requires well-drained soil Flower: Raceme, cream colored bell-flowers Bloom Period: June Foliage: Purple-Black Fall Color: Purple-Black Urban Approved: No Fruit Notes: Insignificant, raceme

Suggested Uses:

The versatility of Obsidian Coralbells means the possibilities are endless! Use as a border, or mass in the garden where some added color is desired. Coralbells do well in the dry shade often found beneath trees, making them well suited for underplanting.

Wildlife Value:

While not a key species for wildlife in Wisconsin, Obsidian Coralbells provide value as a nectar source. The petite flowers will attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators.

Maintenance Tips:

In general, Coralbells are tough plants with few problems. While tolerant of alkaline soils, Obsidian Coralbells can experience rot with poor drainage. Amending soil with compost when planting will mitigate this issue.

In full sun, the leaves can scorch if there is not enough soil moisture. Conversely, Obsidian Coralbells can get crown rot in shade with too much moisture. Divide in spring when center has become woody (typically every 3-4 years).

Obsidian Coralbells can frost heave in Wisconsin winters if improperly planted or not adequately protected. When planting, amend soil with compost and plant Obsidian Coralbells even with the surrounding soil. Applying a fall mulch of 3-4” will prevent frost heaving. If frost heaving is noticed, push the crown back into the soil to protect the roots.

Spent flower stalks can be removed when Obsidian Coralbells has stopped blooming. This may encourage a second bloom. The leaves are semi evergreen and may hold their color if winter is not too severe, or if adequately protected with mulch and snow cover. Damaged and withered leaves should be cleaned up in spring.

Pests/Problems:

Obsidian Coralbells has no major insect and disease issues but can be subject to frost heaving in winter. Occasionally you may find powdery mildew, rust, and bacterial leaf spot. The plants can also be damaged by weevils and nematodes. These diseases, however, are not major and best avoided by maintaining good plant vigor and siting properly.

For the most part, Obsidian Coralbells are deer and rabbit resistant due to their fuzzy (pubescent) stems and leaves.

Leaf Lore:

Obsidian Coralbells have the darkest leaves of all Heuchera cultivars. This contrasts nicely with the light, creamy racemes of flowers that rise above the foliage in June. Obsidian Coralbells have improved resistance to powdery mildew, ensuring their stand-out foliage remains beautiful all year.

The Heuchera genus includes over 30 recognized species, all native to much of North America. They are found on a wide variety of sites, from rocky outcroppings to wooded meadows, with a variety of different growth habits. Although useful for many landscape applications, Coralbells were not widely used until the 1980s. Today, there are a plethora of cultivars available with different foliage colors, flowers, and growth forms. At Johnson’s Nursery, we try to limit our inventory to those varieties we know are successful for our Southeastern Wisconsin soils and climate.

Coralbells are also known as Alumroot, a name derived from their medicinal properties as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. The genus name Heuchera is a reference to the German botanist and physician Johann Heinrich von Heucher.

Companion Plants:

The compact habit and mounded form of Obsidian Coralbells makes it a versatile plant for any space needing an extra splash of color, or where contrast is desired against a light-colored building. Use Obsidian Coralbells with Deutschland Astilbe, Fire and Ice Hosta, and other light-colored plants for great contrast.

OBSIDIAN CORALBELLS BENCHCARD

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