By Matt Gibson
Coral Bells, also called alumroot, and heucheras, are elegant, voracious, herbaceous shade perennials flowers which are native to America. Cultivated as an ornamental plant, coral bells are grown primarily for their lush, attractive foliage, which comes in a wide range of colors, including green, bronze, purple, and more, though they are typically listed as evergreens or semi-evergreens in many climates.
Coral bells are named for their red, white, pink, or coral-colored, bell-shaped blooms which bloom from late spring to early summer, in tiny clusters that rest along tall stalks that reach up to three feet at maturity. Flower stalks can be two to three times as tall as the mound of foliage at the base of the plant.
Coral Bells are said to be hardy to USDA zones four through nine, but depending on the variety, some species can grow up north in zone 3 and some thrive as far south as zone 11. Coral bells have boomed in popularity in the last decade due to the influx of new varieties created by breeders, and the amazing array of stunning foliage that was a result. The foliage of the coral bells plant is its most prized feature. The large, rounded or heart-shaped leaves can be variegated, ruffled, solid, or two-toned. As evergreens, you can expect your coral bells to bring year-round beauty to your garden, providing a steady dose of both texture and color in every season.
Plant coral bells in large groups, as edge plants in woodland or traditional garden styles, in varied perennial borders, or when paired with like-minded, shade-loving perennials like astilbes, irises, and bleeding hearts. Coral bells also work well in container gardens, or as specimen plants. They pair well with other plants and the wide variety of colors to pick from means that there is a heuchera that will fit into any garden design. Alumroot is also a great pick for xeriscaping, as well as rock gardens. Other excellent companion plants for coral bells include ferns, caladiums, impatiens, and hosta.
During their blooming season, expect butterflies and hummingbirds to become frequent garden visitors to enjoy heuchara’s nectar-rich blossoms. Coral bells flower clusters also make nice cut flowers, and tend to stay full and attractive for a long time after cutting before beginning to wilt. Butterflies and hummingbirds are not the only fans of these eye-catching ornamentals. Gardeners too, are becoming quite fond of these versatile plants. Once you get started growing coral bells, you too, might find yourself in awe of their presence.
Varieties of Coral Bells
There are many different varieties of coral bells flowers, and the list of new cultivars just keeps growing longer and longer as breeders add exciting new additions to an already large group of plants. This is by no means a definitive list, but it is a great place to start, as we gathered a diverse group of varieties with a wide variety of foliage and flower colors to choose from. The list below is a collection of some of our favorites. Believe it or not, it was quite tough to narrow it down, and it’s not a short list.
Amber Waves – This coral bells cultivar is the complete package. It’s got a patriotic name, copper leaves, ruffles, pink buds that open into cream-colored blossoms. Hardy to USDA zones three through eight. Won, “best new plant,” in 2001.
Berry Smoothie – Beginning the season with rose pink leaves that darken to purple during the summer months, the berry smoothie requires partial shade and lots of water until they reach maturity. Hardy to zones four through eight. Deadhead for light pink returning blooms all summer long.
Blackberry Ice – Reddish purple leaves with black veins. Hardy to zones four through nine. Produces white midsummer blossoms.
Caramel – This heat tolerant cultivar enjoys afternoon shade and is hardy to zones four through eight. It has caramel colored leaves with reddish-pink undersides. Produces light pink blooms in midsummer.
Carnival Peach Parfait – A shade-loving coral bell cultivar, Peach Parfait’s best feature is its intricate foliage, The topside of the leaves are light peach, with burnt orange edges and veins. On the underside, a more vibrant pinkish-orange
Citronelle – This heat tolerant variety has striking lime green foliage. Requires partial shade. Hardy to zones four through eight.
Gold Zebra – The foliage of this cultivar is simply stunning, boasting loud yellow leaves with deep red centers and scalloped edges. This heat-tolerant cultivar performs well in zones four through nine in partial shade.
Green Spice – The deeply veined foliage of this eye-catching variety has splashes of green, purple, and silver. Produces tiny white flowers in the late spring and early summer. Hardy to USDA zones four through nine.
Hollywood – This coral bells cultivar got its name for being the star of the show. The foliage is so dark that it appears black from a distance, but up close it is actually partially deep purple and partially deep green with silver undertones. Most coral bells plants are striking because of their foliage, and though the leaves of the hollywood variety are impressive, to be sure, the bright red, hummingbird attracting flowers are the real star for the hollywood variety.
Lime Marmalade – Lime green leaves that stay bright and vibrant all year long. Sends up tall flower shutes covered with tiny white flowers in the summer.
Melting Fire – Beautiful, intricately ruffled foliage that can change from dark red to dark purple during different seasons. Tiny white flowers decorate 18 inch stems in the late spring. Prone to sun scorch if not offered afternoon shade and provided plenty of water.
Midnight Rose – This cultivar is special. Reddish-black leaves with tiny pink specks that grow larger and brighter as the season progresses. This low, mounding variety only grows to a height of 10 inches. Hardy to zones four through nine.
Obsidian – As its name suggests, the Obsidian cultivar has deep purplish-black leaves, which makes it a great contrast as a backdrop for brighter flowers or even lighter greens. Hardy to zones four through eight. Sprouts tall stems with bright white flower clusters
Peppermint Spice – Sporting rose-pink blossoms in the summer and silvery-green leaves all year long, this is the quintessential coral bell cultivar, according to gardeners with experience growing heuchera. This variety grows eight to 10 inches high and is hardy to zones four through nine.
Growing Conditions for Coral Bells
Pick out a location that receives filtered sunlight or partial shade, and provide a moist, well-draining soil that is rich in organic matter, like compost. Coral bells prefer a loamy soil with a slightly acidic to neutral pH between 6.0 and 7.0. [ https://www.gardeningchannel.com/how-soil-ph-balance-affects-your-garden/]They can handle full sunlight in cool weather locations but require partial shade in hot climates. Overexposure to the sun can cause the leaf color to wash out and scorch the leaves. If you choose to grow coral bells in full sunlight, provide extra water. Coral bells prefer a consistently moist soil but can actually go a few weeks without hydration. Provide one inch of water per week for optimal growth. Hardy to USDA zones 4 through 8, sometimes 9, depending on the variety.
How to Plant Coral Bells
Coral bells are equipped with fibrous roots with shallow reach, so don’t plant them too deep into the soil when transplanting. If starting from seed, get your coral bells started indoors. Using a seed tray use a mix of equal parts seed starter mix and perlite. Moisten the mixture and sprinkle a small amount of seeds on the surface of the tray. Do not cover them with additional soil. Coral bell seed will not germinate without direct sunlight. With moist soil and a little bit of encouragement from the sunshine, coral bell seeds will germinate and sprout in about two weeks.
When you notice your coral bells seedlings developing a second leaf set, thin them out and transplant them to the garden, as long as all threat of frost has passed. Space plants about two feet apart. Plant the root ball just underneath the soil.
Care for Coral Bells
Provide one inch of water per week and try to keep soil consistently moist, but never soggy, at all times. Coral bells grown in containers or in hot and/or dry climate areas should be given extra water. After the plant has finished flowering, cut the entire flower stalk back to encourage the plant to focus on growing more leaves. Cut back damaged leaves right after winter. In cold climates, the crown of the coral bells plant pushes itself up above the soil line. Laying down a thick layer of mulch right after the ground freezes over will slow the ground thaw that is responsible for pushing up plants. Keep an eye out for exposed roots.
Deadheading faded flowers will not promote more blooms, but it’s always nice to do it for cosmetic care. Cut back any older growth that has turned woody. In the springtime, work in a half an inch layer of compost or a light serving of slow-release fertilizer. Avoid using quick-release fertilizers on coral bells plants.
How to Propagate Coral Bells
Coral bells can be propagated by seed, or by root division, division being the easiest way to propagate. Coral bells plants should be divided every three to five years. Forgetting to divide these flowers can lead to the plants on the inside of the clump dying off due to suffocation. Propagation from seed is addressed in the how to plant section above, though sowing from seed is not recommended, as it is very hard to get coral bells seeds to germinate in a timely fashion, and seeds require a six week long cold period before they should even be planted.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Coral Bells
Rust and other fungal infections sometimes trouble coral bells. To avoid fungal issues, make sure your soil is draining well and getting plenty of air circulation. Water around the base instead of overhead to keep leaves from getting wet. Keep a careful eye out for fungal infections during hot, humid periods. Copper fungicides are usually very effective and fast-acting. If you lose the battle to fungus in your garden, you will need to remove infected plants regularly. Coral bells which are grown in consistently wet, soggy, poorly-draining soils will develop issues with root and crown rot.
The only major pest issues for Coral Bells plants are concerning weevils and nematodes. Fortunately, weevil infestations only cause cosmetic damage. Nematodes, on the other hand, cause fungal leaf spots which turn into entire dead areas. Nematode infestations can be fatal for many plants, and there is no effective treatment for nematodes, so infected plants need to be destroyed and discarded.
How to Store Coral Bells Plants in Winter
In USDA Hardiness Zones [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/a-guide-to-planting-zones/] 4 through 9, coral bells plants are winter hardy. For gardeners in these zones, the plants can be left outdoors to survive through all but the most severe winters. Steps should be taken though, to ensure the plants do not die back. Gardeners who live in other Zones or those in Zone 3 through 9 who need to protect coral bells from an extremely cold winter should move their plants can be moved to a location that will facilitate their survival until spring, when coral bells can be moved into outdoor containers or transplanted into the outdoor garden.
To store a coral bells plant for the winter, set it up for success by ensuring that the soil where it grows offers plenty of drainage. If your soil does not drain well where coral bells are growing you can use soil amendments to alter its texture. Suitable amendments include a two- to four-inch layer of mulch [https://www.gardeningchannel.com/4-ways-to-mulch-your-vegetable-garden/
with a fine texture, such as well-rotted compost or shredded fallen leaves. In zones 8 and 9, a two or three-inch layer of fine mulch should be applied after fall’s first frost date to help prevent soil heaving due to the cold. Soil heaving is especially an issue in wet conditions for gardeners with clay soil. Established beds that already provide good drainage will still benefit from a smaller treatment: one to two inches. This layer of mulch will help regulate the soil temperature and keep weeds at bay throughout the winter. As it decomposes, the mulch also enriches the soil beneath it.
Then, three to four days before the forecasted first freeze date in winter, make sure your coral bells plants have enough hydration to survive the dehydration that can accompany freezing temperatures. Like the mulch, the extra water helps the soil stay a bit warmer than it otherwise would in freezing temperatures.
If your coral bells plant dies back, use a clean, sanitized pair of kitchen shears to cut the affected foliage to a length of 3 inches above the surface of the soil. Do not prune back in the winter in regions where coral bells plants stay evergreen year round. In all zones, gardeners should prune their plants in spring, clipping off dead and damaged branches as well as any they wish to remove for visual reasons.
Coral bells are a very versatile flowering plant with a very diverse array of newly bred varieties, most of which have been endowed with some of the most highly ornamental foliage in the entire plant community. The tiny bell-shaped flowers that grow along tall flower shutes on the coral bells plant, have to get used to playing second fiddle to the leaves on a plant with the most exciting foliage in the country.