If any one plant has revolutionised ornamental gardening more than any other, it has to be the heuchera.
Heucheras (common names alum root and coral bells) are related to the saxifrage, and all species, of which there are around 40, are indigenous to North America; the Native Americans used some species for medicinal purposes.
When I started gardening seriously, the only heuchera found in many gardens was H. sanguinea, which I always thought of as a rather nondescript-looking plant, pretty enough when producing its coral-red flowers in early summer, but unexciting when in only in leaf.
It was when ‘Palace Purple’ appeared on the scene in the Eighties that a revolution started to take place in herbaceous plants with both stunning foliage and attractive flowers.
Heuchera species hybridise with gay abandon to produce some of the most sought-after plants around today.
Most of the eye-catching varieties available from nurseries and garden centres are hybrids of H. americana, a plant with leaves variously coloured from pale green to purplish, and hybridisers have produced an enormous number of cultivars from this and other heuchera species,in a wide range of leaf colours in green, pink, yellow and bronze, often mottled or variegated, and white, green, pink or red flower spikes, often described in catalogues as appearing in spring; however, I find that with these modern varieties, if you cut off the first spikes when they start to fade, you can keep the plants flowering through to the autumn.
Heuchera will also hybridise readily with a similar plant, Tiarella cordifolia (foam flower), to give crosses with similar leaf colour characteristics to heuchera hybrids, but with shapes more recognisable as those of tiarella.
Known as x heucherella, they are equally dazzling; most good garden centres always have a selection of the best varieties of both heuchera and x heucherella currently around, with new cultivars constantly being introduced.
It is small wonder that these plants have become so popular for a variety of uses, from ground cover and to give colour to beds and borders, to all-year-round subjects for containers, window boxes and hanging baskets.
As with all almost perfect things, however, they do have an Achilles heel – theirs is that they are extremely attractive to both the adult vine weevil, which nibbles bits out of the leaves and spoils the shape and therefore a lot of their effect, and the grubs, especially in pots, but these can be controlled by watering with a vine weevil killer every few months.