The Heuchera Blues

– Posted in: Garden Plants

When I read that Fran had chosen heuchera as the GGW Plant Pick of the Month, I was pretty psyched. The plants have such a tidy, mounded habit and handsome leaf shape that they immediately come to mind when I’m looking for a hardy foliage plant in the front-of-the-border height range. And well, with such incredible colors and markings to choose from, what’s not to like about heucheras? Ah, yeah, that’s where reality sets in. I adore heucheras, but they sure don’t feel the same about me.

Those of you who have been gardening for twenty-some years may remember how exciting it was when we first got to try ‘Dale’s Strain’, a seed strain of Heuchera americana that often produces seedlings with a bit more purple center staining and silvery marbling than the straight species of alumroot. Those did pretty well in my old garden. And ‘Palace Purple’ too: how exciting it was to have that deep purple foliage!

Then came the thrillingly variegated ‘Snowstorm’, a white-speckled selection of H. sanguinea. My failure with that one was the first disappointment with heucheras, but I sure wasn’t going to give up on them, especially when each year after that brought more and more thrilling foliage variations. So year after year, I was more than happy to treat myself to at least one or two of the newest beauties.

I guess it’s the memory of my early successes with heucheras, and the fact that they look so gorgeous in photos and in nursery pots, that has blinded me to the fact that I’ve wasted a whole lot of money since then on plants that really don’t want to grow where I want them to. I mean, there’s the old saying about “you don’t really know a plant unless you’ve killed it three times.” But I figured I just didn’t know heucheras as well as I thought because I didn’t try the exact same cultivar three times; I kept trying (and killing) different ones. Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s the best logic I can come up with for my unrequited passion for these plants.

A few years ago, I tried to change my expectations and think of the fantastic foliage heucheras as just really expensive annuals. One summer, I managed the combo above, with ‘Lime Rickey’ heuchera, ‘Silver Falls’ ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea), and ‘Axminster Gold’ Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum). But even then, the heucheras still did the incredible-shrinking-plants routine: They looked great in May and June and dwindled away

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Heather's Garden August 24, 2008, 10:50 pm

I feel your pain. I just love how they look and they just don’t love my dry, shady/dark garden. I just don’t water them enough and they die on me. Oh well.

Thanks, Heather. It’s good to know that it’s not just me!
-Nan

Frances August 25, 2008, 7:18 am

Hi Nan, that is exactly what happens here too, they shrink to a mere memory of their former selves. If they even live I consider it a success though. And then there are the self sowers, always green with silver but they turn more purple in the winter. They are not as showy as the fancy ones, but they are soldiers in our garden of deathly drought. I quit buying more of the new ones, like you having spent a small fortune on them only for them to dry up and blow away in the wind.

You too, hmmm? Well, it gives us a reason to investigate other foliage options, so I guess it’s not all bad.
-Nan

Dee/reddirtramblings August 25, 2008, 7:28 am

Hi Nan, I have a couple of cultivars which do really well, but most of the others do the dwindling act. I blamed it on our hot summers (even in shade.) Although I’m sorry for your frustrations too, it makes me feel better that I’m not the only one.~~Dee

Thanks for your input, Dee. Interesting to hear that they mostly don’t do well in your region either. I’d love to know which selections *have* done well for you.
-Nan

our friend Ben August 25, 2008, 10:23 am

How well I recall the beauty of ‘Dale’s Strain’ and all the hoopla over ‘Palace Purple’, which took its place with ‘Stella Di Oro’ daylilies, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ as the most overused plants in recent memory. Too bad! I still grow both with pleasure, intermingled with many other heucheras, hellebores, hostas, and ferns in my creekside shade garden. I’ve tried many of the wonderful apricot, chartreuse, and other heucheras in the last few years, and now that you say it, I have to agree: Where are they?!! This year, I too am using one of the chartreuse cultivars as an annual centerpiece in the deck garden. Thanks for highlighting this shortcoming, so we can at least budget accordingly!

I can definitely see investing in one of the newer selections for a special use such as that. If you’ve gotten it to survive this far into the season, maybe it’ll get through the winter as well. Then you’d definitely have to let us know, so I can try it too!
-Nan

Curmudgeon August 25, 2008, 12:28 pm

The one heuchera in our garden that has managed to look great all summer long is ‘Obsidian’. The others look terrible right about now.

Yet another region heard from, and another vote for ‘Obsidian’ – cool. I’m glad you shared your experience too, Curmudgeon; thanks!
-Nan

Benjamin August 25, 2008, 12:58 pm

Here at TDM only 3 of 5 made it through the winter, and I’ve lost another one this summer–just as you describe it. I hate these things now, and they are so darn pricey. Oh, you’ve riled me up good.

Uh oh- a riled Benjamin. Sorry about that. But see, now you know that many of us are having the same problem, you can turn your attention to other cool foliage plants.
-Nan

Lynn August 25, 2008, 2:04 pm

Thank goodness! I thought it was just Zone 5 newbie me that was watching mine shrink in dappled shade with good drainage. A friend has it gushing over a hot city sidewalk, blooming like a fool. go figure. I love the Dichondra–what a cutie!

Well now, that must be very frustrating for you! If you haven’t given up on heucheras completely, maybe you could try one in a similar site?
-Nan

Gail August 25, 2008, 2:46 pm

I have had pretty good success with the H villosas. They are native to the Southeast. I have a dozen of them in a mass planting, just now coming into bloom…Heuchera villosa x Autumn Bride. Those of you growing in heat and humidity might want to try them out…can’t guarantee their zone above 6, that’s what we used to be.

Thanks for the suggestion, Gail. I understand that H. villosa genes may be the reason ‘Obsidian’ is doing all right here so far. ‘Caramel’ is also from H. villosa, so that gives me hope for being able to grow it as well.
-Nan

Chris August 25, 2008, 6:01 pm

‘Obsidian’ does well for me too in NY/Westchester. I have three plants that have come back for their third summer- the one closest to the edge/retaining wall seems happiest. Good to know about ‘Caramel’- I’ve had my eye on ‘Marmalade’ for a while.

Good to hear from you, Chris, with another vote for ‘Obsidian’. I think we’ll need to revisit this topic again next spring to see how ‘Caramel’ has performed over the winter. I did try ‘Marmalade’ but lost it over the summer.
-Nan

Jean August 25, 2008, 11:26 pm

I just got the heuchera bug last year and have already managed to kill at least 5 of them. One managed to survive into this year but is now doing it’s slow departing act. I thought it was the heat and humidity but sounds like from all the other folks’ comments that it’s the nature of the beast/plant?? I don’t think I’ll be trying it again. But say, has anyone tried them in pots? Do they do better there?

Oops – sorry it’s taken me a while to catch up on answering comments, Jean. I don’t think anyone has chimed in on the subject of heucheras in pots. I do know that heucheras tend to look fabulous in nursery pots – maybe the combination of good drainage and regular watering and fertilizing is the reason there. I’m guessing that the plants would do equally well in decorative pots with the same care.
-Nan

Dave August 26, 2008, 11:58 am

I’ve been pretty happy with our heucheras. They aren’t as lush in this August heat as they were but they seem to be doing fine, if maybe a tad smaller. The palace purples are in their second year in the ground. Of course we do live near Gail so it might be our climate that is more hospitable for heucheras.

Good to hear that they’re doing well for you too, Dave!
-Nan

Nancy August 26, 2008, 1:18 pm

Here in the Santa Cruz mountains, in California, heucheras grow wild along the road to the mailbox, and they thrive in the garden when the gophers and rabbits don’t get them. I presume our Mediterranean climate and their excellent drainage makes the difference. I love them!

Excellent – another region heard from, and with more positive news. Sounds like you have the right ones for your climate. Thanks for letting us know, Nancy!
-Nan

Hap August 27, 2008, 10:25 am

Most commercially produced Heucheras are grown using a slew of growth regulators, to make them that perfect colorful mound at the nursery. These growth hormones can limit their ability to become established in the un-pampered reality of most gardens… even buying bare-root and dormant stock does not mean they have not been treated. I get wholesale catalogs offering pre-treated liners, which makes me wonder why the brokers would waste their fancy catalogs on an organic grower, let alone a xeric grower….

As others have said, it is always best to look at the parent species that the cultivars have been bred from. It gives a good hint of what environments that they have the genetics to grow in, lovely northern clime descendants hate Mediterranean climates like northern California, but do like places that get real frost and even snow. And of course the plants that grow here will not put up with a real winter.

Oh, how interesting about the growth regulators, Hap. I guess I should have realized that. It does seem that finding the right match of species to climate is important. The tricky thing is with the new cultivars that have resulted from crosses of several species: It’s hard to know if they have enough of the right genes for your climate until you try them for yourself.
-Nan

Lisa at Greenbow August 27, 2008, 7:39 pm

I have had some trouble with those heucheras too Nan. I still have Palace Purple. It does the best in my garden. Never lets me down. I tried at least three times to get Lime Rickey to grow here. I think I told you about tossing it onto the compost pile just to find it living early this spring. Ha…that just goes to show you never know what will happen in the garden. Excuse me while I go check the compost.

Yep: I too find the compost pile can make a great rehab area! Good to hear that your ‘Palace Purple’ is still doing well. I used to be a bit of a snob about “common” perennials like old ‘Palace Purple’, but now I find that I appreciate them more and more. Generally, they’re common because they perform dependably, adapt to a wide range of conditions, and don’t need a lot of fussing: all valuable features in my world!
-Nan

ricki August 29, 2008, 2:43 pm

When I had an open garden, several visitors asked if I had trouble with my heucheras. It puzzled me, because they have always performed well in a border with dappled shade. I do buy them only from the Hardy Plant Society of OR plant sale, or from a grower friend who uses none of the growth regulators mentioned by Hap. Zone 7 could have something to do with it, though.

I really appreciate your input, Ricki. If you check back in, I’d be very interested to hear which cultivars you’re having good luck with.
-Nan

Thomask September 4, 2008, 12:48 am

Thanks for the opportunity to bash Heucheras! But seriously, it may be another issue in addition to summer heat and soil texture. I’m pretty sure that those derived from H. sanguinea don’t like acidic soil. Of the fancy ones, I’ve found ‘Plum Pudding’ to be tougher than most and the color is very good, a real purple without any wine-brown-burgundy stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…but real purple is more unusual.

I should also let you know that 3 ‘Obsidian’ plants survived a Chicago winter last year in sticky clay soil at my sister’s house, so that was a lucky purchase.

The H. americana and H. villosa types self-sow freely in well-drained coarse soil for me, in places that tend to stay moist. It’s so easy and fun to grow ‘Dale’s Strain’ from seed. You can make nice plants in one season, if you start them early indoors, under lights preferably. There is much leaf-color variation from plant to plant, so you can bestow your own cute names on them. The flower spikes in May/June provide textural interest, which means they are pretty lame from a decorative point of view. But it’s all about the leaves.

You can also grow ‘Palace Purple’ easily from seed. There will be some color variation from plant to plant, so just keep the plants you like.

My very favorite Heuchera is mentioned above, H. villosa ‘Autumn Bride’, which is probably the same as H. villosa var. macrorhiza that I originally bought. The fuzzy leaves are big, gorgeous and apple-green, with no markings. The small white flowers are borne on wide, tall spikes, and as the name says, start in August to provide a nice late show for a couple months.

Certainly at home in a shady perennial border, this plant is invaluable for giving some structure and geometry to woodland gardens, especially at a time of year when many other woodland plants look bedraggled, at best. Thanks, Nan. As usual, the color combo in your photo is delicious.

Hey, Thomas, thanks ever so much for sharing your thoughts. The tip about H. sanguinea disliking acid soil explains a lot, because the soil everywhere I’ve gardened has definitely been on the acidic side.

Very cool about ‘Obsidian’ surviving in the Chicago area as well!

And you’re quite right about the fun of growing out ‘Dale’s Strain’ seedlings. Craig at Ellis Hollow showed some nice ones in his post Heucheras: Managing Expectations.

And uh, now that I think of it, I do have H. villosa ‘Autumn Bride’, and it performs very well for me. But see, it’s just green (foliage-wise), so I mostly overlook it. Nice in flower, though.
-Nan

ricki September 8, 2008, 4:42 pm

Nan- Sashay has multiplied to the point where it needs dividing soon (this time I will put some of it in an elevated position, where the blushing undersides of the leaves may be appreciated). Amber Waves and Caramel are almost indistinguishable from one another, except that the leaves on the latter are a bit larger. Both of these pale-leaved varieties scorch if they get too much sun. I have several dark-leaved varieties, whose names are lost to me, but all do well and remain evergreen (or caramel, or burgundy, or amber, or…) year round(please don’t hate me)

Thanks so much for the additional info, Ricki. And hey, no hating here; I’m happy to know that they do well for you!
-Nan

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