One of the garden’s best loved secrets, Heuchea is a colorful perennial which is commonly grown for its foliage. An ideal way to add color and interest to shady spots, Heuchera is a traditional foliage plant new cultivars of which are developed every year.
While the leaves of Heuchera are the primary interest, in the spring and early summer months small bell shaped flowers set on tall, elegant stems. These flowers have given the plant its other, common name: Coral Bells.
A resilient, low maintenance perennial, you need to divide your Heuchera plant regularly to prevent it from completely dying away. If you want to know how to do this, as well as other useful care and planting information, our How to Grow Heuchera guide is for you.
What is Heuchera?
A popular landscaping choice, Coral Bells reliably adds color to tree-filled or shady gardens. The attractive flowers of Heuchera are rich in nectar. This means that they draw scores of butterflies and hummingbirds to your garden. Finally, Heuchera is also a good cut flower.
While the flowers are of interest, Heuchera is largely grown for its lobed or rounded, hairy rounded foliage. Traditional or older cultivars typically produce green leaves. For something a little more colorful, newer cultivars can produce leaves in a range of colors including lime green, gold, purple, and rose.
Evergreen in warmer climates, Heuchera typically reaches 8 to 18 inches in height and can spread up to 2 ft wide. Most types are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Native to North America, the plants are naturally found growing in wooded and shady areas.
Best planted in late fall or early spring. Heuchera plants are popular for their moderate growth habit. As well as adding color to shady or wooded areas, you can use the plants in rock gardens, floral borders, floral container displays or as ground cover.
Different Types of Heuchera
There are a number of different types of Heuchera. Four of these:
- H. Americana,
- H. Sanguinea,
- H. Villosa,
- H. Parviflora
All four are commonly sold under the name Coral Bells.
Coral Bells comprises a large range of different Heuchera varieties and hybrids. Of these H. Sanguina is regarded as the best ornamental cultivar.
Many popular types of Coral Bells are hybrids. The majority of these are the products of crossing H. Americana and H. Sanguina. Hybrid cultivars are increasingly popular for their colorful foliage and textural variations.
Another type of Heuchera plant is the Alumroot. These typically have medium green leaves, however some are more colorful. For example, Dale’s Strain and Palace Purple are two popular Alumroot plants that produce purple foliage.
Some of the most popular or attractive types of Heuchera are:
- Autumn Leaves, a hybrid variety its foliage changes from red to caramel to ruby as the seasons progress,
- Plum Pudding is a good container plant, reaching around 12 inches in height it tolerates most light conditions,
- Chocolate Ruffles is another hybrid cultivar. Its attractive leaves are a rich chocolate color on top and deep burgundy underneath,
- Green Spice is a hardy hybrid popular for its large green leaves that are decorated with maroon veins,
- Fire Chief produces bright red foliage which deepens to crimson in late summer and fall,
- Marmalade is a showy, frilly hybrid. Marmalade’s leaves can be umber or deep sienna in color,
- Citronelle is popular for its bright yellow-green leaves. It is an ideal choice for adding color to shady areas,
- Electric Lime produces bright, lime green leaves which are marked with blood red veins,
- Palace Purple is a dark leaved Coral Bells cultivar which is popular for its muted understated color,
- Caramel is popular for its light color. Best used in a shady spot, Caramel rarely exceeds 16 inches in height and works well with a range of other plants,
- Georgia Peach is a good statement plant. Its pink leaves are decorated with darker pink or purple veins,
- Melting Fire is one of the most popular cultivars thanks to its fiery red or deep purple foliage,
- Ruby Bells produces attractive green foliage and deep red flowers.
Many Alum Root and Coral Bells cultivars produce attractive, colorful foliage.
Whichever variety of Alum Root or Coral Bells you choose to grow, care and maintenance is largely the same.
Where to Plant Coral Bells
Most varieties of Coral Bells are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. However some are only hardy to Zone 7. Do your research before purchasing a specific variety to ensure that it is suitable to your growing conditions.
Heuchera plants prefer dry air and low humidity levels. Some types, such as H. Vilosa, which is native to the southeastern United States, prefers both heat and humidity.
Most varieties are best planted in a semi shade position. Some hybrid types also do well in full sun. However, plants growing in full sun require more frequent watering than those in shadier spots. Even in warm areas, these plants are best planted in partial shade.
Exposure to too much light washes out the colorful foliage. It can also cause the leaves to develop sunburn or scorching
The soil should be humus or organically rich. A neutral or slightly acidic soil, a pH of 6.0 to 7.0, is ideal. It should also be well draining. A soil test kit tells you the pH level of your soil. This is particularly important when planting in shady positions. If the soil is too damp, or the plants are watered too frequently, the crown can easily start to rot.
How to Plant Coral Bells
These plants are typically sold as bare root specimens. This is particularly true of plants ordered and delivered via mail order. Bare root plants are easier to ship than those already planted in pots.
While you can order your chosen variety at any time, many nurseries only ship their stock when it is ready to plant.
After receiving your Heuchera check the roots for any signs of damage and mold.
Soak the roots for 12 to 18 hours in a bucket filled with fresh water. Soaking helps to moisten roots that have dried out during the shipping process, waking them up before planting. Waking up the roots helps the plants to quickly establish themselves in the soil.
Prepare the soil by loosening it to a depth of 18 inches. Work in any necessary compost or organic materials to loosen the soil and improve drainage before planting.
When you are ready to plant, dig a hole, large enough to hold the Coral Bell’s root system. Spread out the roots evenly in the hole. When placed in the hole, the crown should sit just below the soil surface.
Do not plant Heuchera too deeply. This is a shallow root plant. Placing it too deeply in the soil can cause it to fail. You may need to add or remove soil before you are happy with the planting position.
Center the plant in the hole before backfilling with potting or garden soil.
If you are planting more than one Heuchera plant, space them 12 to 15 inches apart.
After planting, water the soil well. Following this allow the soil to dry out for around a week before watering again. Continue to keep the soil moderately dry until roots emerge.
Once fresh roots sprout up, water to keep the soil evenly moist.
Potting and Repotting Coral Bells
While Heuchera can grow in pots, it is more commonly planted in the ground.
To plant in a pot, fill your chosen container with a well draining potting mix and plant as you would in the ground. Your chosen plant pot should be wide enough to comfortably hold the root system of Coral Bells. It should also have lots of drainage holes in the bottom.
To prevent root rot and other issues caused by overwatering, plant the root crown slightly above soil level. Mound the soil up to lightly cover the root crown. The slope created by mounding the soil encourages excess water to drain away from the plant.
To overwinter Coral Bells plants growing in pots, simply move the pot to a protected location. You may need to cease watering pot growing Coral Bells plants during the winter months to encourage them to enter a dormant period.
While the Heuchera can grow in a pot, it is not a reliable houseplant.
Caring for Coral Bells
A low maintenance, resilient specimen, Heuchera plants growing in containers may need a little more care than those in ground. Wherever you choose to grow your Coral Bells plants, if you take the time to learn and adopt the right care practices the plants will reward your efforts with a long lasting, colorful display.
Coral Bells is a low maintenance plant.
When to Water
When it comes to watering a Heuchera plant, your main aim should be to keep the soil consistently moist.
Most established Heuchera plants tolerate some drought. Younger specimens do not tolerate dry soil and may fail if not regularly watered. Regularly water young plants for the first year after planting.
In general, if it doesn’t rain, you need to apply an inch of water a week to the growing plants. Specimens growing in full sun may need more frequent watering. The easiest way to keep your plants happy is to use a soaker hose, drenching the soil all around the plants.
Heuchera plants have shallow roots. During particularly warm, sunny spells they require extra moisture to keep them happy.
Mulching around the plant helps to improve soil moisture retention and keep the roots cool during warm spells.
How to Fertilize
Fertilize your Heuchera plants in the spring. You can do this by working a half inch thick layer of compost into the soil. When amending the soil, be careful not to disturb or damage the shallow roots. Alternatively, spread a light dose of slow release fertilizer evenly around the plants.
If you are growing Heuchera in a pot you can apply a water soluble or homemade liquid fertilizer. As well as boosting fresh growth, a water soluble fertilizer helps to replenish the nutrients that leach from soil during watering. Check the product label to know how much and how often to apply.
Whether it is planted in a container or the ground, Heuchera is not a heavy feeding plant. A light dose of fertilizer is more than enough to sustain its growth habit.
Do not apply heavy doses of quick release fertilizer. This inhibits flowering.
Too much fertilizer inhibits flowering.
Pruning Heuchera Leaves
A low maintenance specimen, Heuchera plants require only light, occasional pruning to keep them looking neat and tidy.
Once flowering has ended use a garden scissors to cut back the flower stalk. This stops seed development and encourages the plant to put more of its energy into foliage production. Deadheading spent blooms also encourages repeat flowering throughout the summer and early fall.
Ragged leaves can be cut away as and when you notice them. Heuchera foliage can look particularly ragged after the winter months. Pruning in early spring can leave the plants looking bare but new growth quickly forms, filling the gaps with fresh foliage and color.
Overwintering Coral Bells in Different Climates
In warmer climates, Coral Bells is an evergreen plant.
In colder climates you need to protect the plants from potentially harmful winter temperatures. Mulching the roots helps to protect the roots from the damaging freeze and thaw cycle which can cause heaving.
Before applying the protective mulch, clean up any debris from around the plants. Clearing away debris and keeping your flower beds neat prevents fungi from overwintering in your garden. In colder climates you can also cut the plants back to about 3 inches above soil level. In milder areas there is no need to cut the foliage back, just trim away any damaged or dead leaves.
During the winter months, regularly check your mulch covered plants for signs of heaving. You may also need to replenish the mulch during this period.
Different Heuchera Propagation Methods
There are a number of ways to propagate new Coral Bells plants.
The easiest method is to dig up and divide the root clumps of mature plants. Divisions can be made in either the fall or spring. If possible, divisions are best made in the fall. This gives the newly separated plants time to settle in the soil overwinter before flourishing the following spring.
To divide, use a shovel to dig around a mature Coral Bells plant. Once encircled, carefully work the shovel or a fork under the roots. This enables you to lift the entire plant and its root system intact from the soil.
After lifting the plant, brush away any remaining clumps of dirt and inspect the root system. You should be able to divide the root clump into a number of smaller sections each with several growth shoots. Use a sharp, clean knife to neatly divide the root section. The woody central portion, as well as any sections that are showing signs of disease, can be discarded.
Once divided, prepare the new planting site by working in lots of fresh compost. Plant shallowly as described above, barely covering the roots with soil.
Division by Offsets
Some types of Coral Bells can produce small offsets. These form around the parent plant.
Once they are large enough to handle, the offsets can be dug up and planted in small pots.
Care for the offsets as you would a larger Heuchera plant, they soon start to grow and develop.
Growing Plants from Seed
Growing from seed is a slower process than propagation by division. It can also be unpredictable. Seeds collected from hybrid plants rarely grow true to type. Instead they favor one of the parent plants. Commercially produced seeds and those harvested from pure species are more reliable.
To collect your own seeds, allow the spent flowers to remain on the plant. As the flowers fade tiny seeds form. These should be allowed to develop and ripen on the stalk. Once the seeds turn brown the stalks can be cut from the plant.
Place the stalks in a paper bag. Shake the bag, separating the seeds from the plant.
Store the harvested seeds in a paper envelope, in a cold, dry place until you are ready to use them.
You can either sow viable seeds directly onto the soil in the final growing position or start them undercover, a few weeks before the last frost date.
To direct sow, sprinkle the seeds on the surface of the prepared soil in late fall or early spring. Before sowing the seeds take the time to dig the soil over, removing weeds and stones and working in any necessary amendments.
Sow the seeds as thinly as possible. Coral Bells seeds require lots of light to germinate, this means that there is no need to cover them with a layer of soil. Moistening the soil before sowing encourages the seeds to stay in place.
You can also start the seeds undercover in Seed Starting Plant Trays undercover a couple of months before you are aiming to transplant them into the garden. To do this, fill the trays with a moist, potting soil and sow on top of the surface. Keep the trays in a light position such as on a greenhouse shelf or a light windowsill.
Regularly check the soil. Mist with a Plant Mister Spray Bottle if the soil shows signs of drying out.
Seeds usually germinate in 2 to 8 weeks, depending on temperature and light levels.
Continue to protect and care for the growing seedlings until the last frost date has passed. Harden off the seedlings before transplanting into the final growing position. Remember to prepare the soil before transplanting.
Common Pests and Problems
When planted in a favorable position, Coral Bells is a trouble free, low maintenance specimen. Regularly check your plants for signs of disease or infestation. If caught early enough, many problems are easy to solve.
Regularly check the foliage for signs of infestation.
If planted in damp soil fungal issues such as rust, bacterial leaf spot and powdery mildew can develop. Many of these issues are easier to prevent than cure. Work sand into the soil before planting to lighten the soil profile and improve drainage. A soil moisture sensor can also be used to help prevent the accidental overwatering of these plants.
Weevils and foliage nematodes can also be problematic. Black vine weevil larvae bore into crowns and roots in the summer and early fall causing Coral Bells plants to wilt and drop their leaves. Regularly inspect the leaves and stems of your plants for signs of infestation. Visible larvae can be hand picked off the plant. Alternatively, infected plants can be treated with a mild insecticide or neem oil. If you are unsure how to apply neem oil, our guide to using neem oil on plants explains exactly how you can use it to keep your plants happy and healthy.
Finally, if planted in an open, sunny position leaf scald or sunburn can develop. Shading the plants during the hottest part of the summer day helps to prevent this. If you have a collection of partial shade loving plants, place them close together and shade with a E.share Shade Cloth.
How to Encourage Flowering
The main attraction of Heuchera is its colorful leaves. The flowers are, for most growers, a secondary concern.
With the right care small flowers form.
Flowers emerge if you are able to provide the plants with good or favorable growing conditions. This means placing the plant in a light or semi-shade position, how much light depends on the cultivar, and planting in rich, well draining, soil.
Additionally, you should water the plants regularly and apply an occasional light dose of fertilizer. Be careful not to over fertilize the plants. Too much fertilizer can deter flowers from developing.
In ideal conditions and with the right care Heuchera plants can be encouraged to repeat bloom from late spring until the fall.
A reliable and attractive plant, Heuchera is a popular addition to the garden. Ideal on its own as a leafy specimen plant, Heuchera is also a good companion for other partial sun loving plants such as hostas and astilbes.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.