Once upon a time, boys and girls, Coral Bells were simple plants with marbled leaves and sprays of tiny bright coral-pink flowers on tall stems that fluttered in the breeze. Sometimes you saw them with flowers in other shades of red or pink, but they were mainly of interest to a small group of keen gardeners. They were notable for their cold hardiness, and a quietly-attractive way to fill a space or two in your garden. How the world changes! Today they are top-rated foliage perennials, and their relatives have been drawn into the circle too.
Known to botanists as Heuchera, there are about 27 species, all of them native to different parts of North America. The early garden varieties, though, were created mostly in Europe, from a handful of species brought over as seeds. Alan Bloom, and English nurseryman, was breeding them in the 1930s, and so was C. O. Rosendahl, at the University of Minnesota. In the 1950s Californian breeders also worked with them, but all these early plants emphasized the bright color of the flowers.
Then, in 1980, Brian Halliwell, a Curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in England, spotted in a garden bed a seedling with rich purple-colored leaves. Since the bed was near Kew Palace, he called it ‘Palace Purple’. That plant turned the heads of breeders away from flowers – which after all only lasted a few weeks, towards foliage, which is attractive all season.
Since most of the plants with handsome leaves don’t have particularly exciting flowers, the name drifted away from Coral Bells towards using the botanical name, Heuchera. (It is usually pronounced ‘Hoo-ke-ra’, but ‘Hoo-che-ra’ is OK too.) If you would like to enjoy the beautiful coral flowers of those earlier plants, look no further than the lovely Dolce® Spearmint Coral Bells, which combine silver-green leaves with a bold display of the classic coral-pink flowers.
Since then the floodgates have opened, and today with have an abundance of different Heuchera, with leaves in all shades from yellows and limes through oranges and browns and a profusion of purples, including some that can be almost black. Easy to grow, and adaptable to moist and dry conditions as well as almost all light levels, they have become incredibly popular and widely-grown in almost every garden.
In the rush, some close relatives of Coral Bells have been overlooked, so let’s take a closer look at some other valuable garden plants – Foam Flowers and Foamy Bells.
If you live in a part of the country with cooler summers, and have a garden – or at least part of one – that is mostly shady, with damp soil, then you probably already know the Foam Flower, Tiarella. These charming plants are native to American woodlands. If you don’t have those kinds of conditions, then this can be a difficult plant to grow. It’s a pity, because the charm of the original Foam Flower, Tiarella cordifolia, is undeniable.
Usually grown as a ground cover, it makes a charming carpet of light-green leaves that are slightly lobed, with toothed edges. The best part, though, are the sprays of white flowers that last for several weeks in spring, and it is the fluffy look of the flowers that gives this plant its common name. The leaf veins are often maroon-red, and the entire leaf can turn purple-red in winter. The plant spreads by stems (stolons) above the ground, and is more or less evergreen.
Another, similar species is Tiarella wherryi, which has more deeply-lobed leaves that look almost like maple. In the northwest is a third species, Tiarella trifoliata, but it is even more demanding for cool, moist summers, and won’t grow well in the northeast.
Because they are a bit demanding, and won’t grow in hot parts of the country, Foam Flowers remain a plant for the few, and they are often seen more in cooler parts of Europe than they are in American gardens. There has been some breeding, and plants like ‘Appalachian Trail’, ‘Oregon Trail’ and ‘Sugar and Spice’ show interesting leaf colors and markings.
Wanting to capture the charm of the Foam Flower, but the easy-care of Heuchera, breeders have crossed together these closely-related plants. Breeding between members of the same genus is of course common, but between two different genera its rare. So rare it gets a special designation. So when you cross Heuchera and Tiarella, you get x Heucherella. The name is of course made from the two ‘parent’ names, and the ‘x’ in front shows it is an ‘intergeneric hybrid’. Whew!
The first time this was done was in 1912, by Emile Lemoine, a son or grandson of the famous French lilac breeder, Victor Lemoine. I don’t think his original plants exist anymore. Alan Bloom, who we have already mentioned as a Coral Bells pioneer, made the same cross in the 1950s, and there have been others. Today Terra Nova nurseries are famous for theirs, but breeders from Canada to Alabama have mastered this difficult trick. We don’t know who came up with the clever name of Foamy Bells for these plants, but it stuck.
When you cross these plants together, you have plants with features from both parents. The leaves are lobes and usually colored in the center, from Tiarella, but they come in a wide range of leaf colorings – silvers, yellows and bronzes – from Heuchera. Most importantly, they are tougher and easier to grow, so many tolerate hot, humid summers much better, while still enjoying the deeper shade loved by Foam Flowers.
Growing Foamy Bells
Although they will enjoy some morning sun, Foamy Bells do best in light shade, while of course most Heuchera enjoys more sun. Rich but well-drained soils are best, and unlike Tiarella, these plants are easy with just a little more attention than you might give to the average Heuchera. Don’t feel they might be tricky – they aren’t. Use them for ground cover directly beneath trees and in the shadow-zone of wooded areas, which is the shady band near trees along the north and east side, but with clear blue sky above. Grow them with ferns, small Hosta, Astilbe and other shade-lovers.
Some Foamy Bells to Grow
The number of varieties of these charming plants keeps growing, and here are some stand-out ones to look out for.
Sweet Tea Foamy Bells – x Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ (PP# 21,296). This charming plant has amazing spring leaves of rich burnt oranges and reds. These colors become amber and cinnamon in summer and in winter, often returning to the brighter oranges for a time in fall. This is the plant in the photograph.
Alabama Sunrise Foamy Bells – x Heucherella ‘Alabama Sunrise’ (PP# 19,611). Perhaps the best variety for hotter areas, the Heuchera parent (H.villosa) brings great resistance to heat and humidity. Bright cold spring leaves with red veins, turning chartreuse later in the season.
Birthday Cake Foamy Bells – x Heucherella ‘Birthday Cake’ (PP# 16,158). A strong mound of chocolate brown foliage topped with clusters of white flowers like candles – terrific impact when surrounded by lighter-colors.
Dayglow Pink Foamy Bells – x Heucherella ‘Dayglow Pink’ (PP# 12,164) A breakthrough hybrid that brings the classic pink blooms of coral bells to the look and habits of a Tiarella.
Golden Zebra Foamy Bells – x Heucherella ‘Golden Zebra’ PPAF. From the Terra Nova nursery, the big golden leaves have a dark brown center. Taller flowers spikes (to 18 inches) than is normal.