Long appreciated for their airy blooms and charming, carefree nature, native heucheras (Heuchera spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9) were gleaned from their mountain and woodland habitats many years ago to prettily populate our shaded perennial borders. Plant breeders took note of heuchera’s hardiness, versatility and beauty. By combining the most attractive features of three native species (H. sanguinea, H. micrantha, and H. americana), they developed a remarkable array of exceptional cultivars whose dazzling foliage colors and intriguing textures frequently outshine the delightful blooms. Hundreds of varieties of this outstanding perennial are available today, with new introductions arriving every year. Equally wonderful planted out in the landscape or grown in containers, heucheras look fabulous planted en masse, and they also combine and contrast beautifully with other shade-loving perennials. With the foliage remaining vibrant all year long, these sturdy perennials are particularly valuable to the NorCal gardener during the winter months, when there’s little else adding any color or excitement to the perennial border.
Though the eye-catching foliage of some of the more modern hybrids may overshadow the flowers, many heucheras are grown specifically because of their alluring blooms and the charm they contribute to beds. These dainty, colorful, bell-shaped blooms are held on long, graceful stems above the evergreen foliage all the way from early spring through late fall in Northern California. Hummingbirds adore the nectar-rich flowers; florists do too, as they are long-lasting, lovely, and captivating in any floral arrangement.
Tips on caring for heucheras
The most recently introduced heuchera hybrids have been bred to tolerate a wider range of growing conditions and exposures than the original species. Here in Northern California, however, heucheras are still happiest when grown in dappled, filtered light, out of the hottest afternoon sun. Rich, slightly acidic, well-drained soil and regular moisture tend to produce the lushest, healthiest plants with the most blooms. But many varieties are actually quite tolerant of poorer soil, and well-established plants are relatively drought tolerant. They’re easy to care for, requiring little maintenance apart from deadheading spent flowers (all the way to the base of the stalk) after each bloom period and removing any dead or ragged leaves in early spring and again in fall. Heucheras are light feeders, though they will benefit from fertilization in the form of a ½-inch layer of well-aged compost applied as a side dressing in spring.
Rejuvenate your heucheras every three to four years when the centers become crowded with short, thick woody stalks. To divide, lift the entire clump, cut away the older woody root stalks, and replant the youngest growth. Water in well, and apply ½ inch of organic compost around the base.
Choice heuchera varieties built for the Northern California climate
When it comes to this genus, not all plants are built the same. Some prefer more shade than our gardens can provide; some cannot thrive through occasional droughty conditions. The following cultivars have proven to be resilient in my Northern California gardens.
‘Delta Dawn’ heuchera
(Heuchera ‘Delta Dawn’, Zones 4–9)
With its wonderful, complex coloration, this is a cheerful and versatile selection. Each golden-chartreuse, maple-shaped leaf is highlighted with crimson veining and a bright red center that is particularly intense in spring and fall. This plant’s tidy, compact growth habit makes it an ideal container, front-of-the-border, or edging plant. ‘Delta Dawn’ grows 8 inches tall (12 inches in bloom) and 14 inches wide, with creamy-chartreuse flowers from spring through fall.
‘Midnight Rose’ heuchera
(Heuchera × ‘Midnight Rose’, Zones 4–9)
This is an intriguing variety with dark, shiny, deep mahogany-purple leaves spotted and splashed with hot pink markings as the new foliage emerges in early spring. These splashes lighten up to paler pink as the leaves mature, leading to a very intriguing plant indeed! The blooms are close to insignificant, but with such dramatic foliage, you’ll hardly notice. ‘Midnight Rose’ is a compact yet showy perennial, reaching 10 inches tall and 16 inches wide.
(Heuchera ‘Paprika’, Zones 4–9)
The large, glowing coral, ruffled foliage of this cultivar adds tropical appeal to a shady garden. It has possibly the brightest orange leaves you’ll ever see in your beds, with the color changing from bright rosy-orange in early spring to white-veiled orange in summer, and finishing to a frosty copper in fall. ‘Paprika’ is a spectacular addition to the shade garden, with pretty, pale peachy blooms from spring through fall. The plants will get 8 inches tall (16 inches with blooms) and 12 to 16 inches wide.
(Heuchera ‘Obsidian’, Zones 4–9)
These broad, glossy, rounded black leaves are among the darkest you’ll find in the gardening world. ‘Obsidian’ is a wonderful performer, retaining its vigor and rich satiny color throughout the seasons, with foliage that positively shines all year long. That more than makes up for the almost inconsequential creamy-white blooms. Stunning when planted in combinations, this variety is just as wonderful in containers as it is in the landscape. It reaches 10 inches tall and 16 inches wide.
‘Peppermint Spice’ heuchera
(Heuchera ‘Peppermint Spice’, Zones 4–9)
If you’re looking for the most charming blooms ever, look no further! The tidy evergreen mounds of silver-veiled, burgundy-veined blue-green foliage provide the perfect backdrop to the wiry-stemmed airy panicles of showy, bell-shaped, bright pink blooms. ‘Peppermint Spice’ is perfect for your shady perennial border or for edging walkways, stunning when mass planted, and delightful in containers. It grows 8 inches tall and 12 inches wide, with the blooms topping out at a tidy 12 inches tall.
(For additional information, watch this video about more choice heuchera varieties.)
—Fionuala Campion is the owner and manager of Cottage Gardens of Petaluma in Petaluma, California.
Photos: Fionuala Campion