I admit it: I’ve got a hankering for heuchera. There’s something about this member of the Saxifrage family that gives me joy. Maybe it’s the dainty flowers, the earth-toned foliage or the adorable cultivar names like ‘Purple Petticoat,’ ‘Southern Comfort,’ ‘Tiramisu’ and ‘Cinnabar Silver,’ to name a few.
Heuchera americana, also known as alumroot, is a widespread native in North America. A close relative of tiarella, or foamflower, it grows wild in woodlands and rocky forests, often in crevices. The "Flora of Virginia" tells me eight species of heuchera are native to Virginia.
Alumroot has a history of medicinal use, and the genus is even named for a medical botanist, Austrian-born Johann von Heucher. According to the "Flora of North America," the Cherokee took alumroot to cure dysentery and a variety of other ailments; the Chickasaw used the root as an astringent.
Hybridization of our native heuchera skyrocketed in the last century. Today, we have hundreds of cultivars to choose from. Their foliage ranges from plum to chartreuse to variegated greens and silvers.
Certified landscape designer Michele Fletcher says she loves the splash of color that heuchera adds to a garden. But there are a few things to keep in mind before planting.
“Sadly, I’ve found a wide difference in reliability,” she said. “My favorite, ‘Amethyst Mist’ has great color and has been the most reliable in the landscape for clients and myself.”
Michele also points out that heuchera may not be as deer resistant as advertised. She says it’s important for the plants to be established before they become deer lunch. “I use them where the deer population is low or where the plants will be protected by boxwoods or nepeta, which deer definitely avoid.”
Most heucheras prefer shade or part shade, but some do well in full sun. Generally, the darker the foliage, the more sun it can tolerate. Well-drained soil is a must. The plants can tolerate poor soil, but if you have heavy soil, dig in some compost or leaf litter before planting.
Try heuchera as an alternative to hosta. No matter which variety you choose, this plant will add soothing color and a playful, airy element to your landscape.
Michele Fletcher is based in Rockbridge County, Va. For photos of her work and plant tips, visit her Facebook page.Julie Buchanan is a public relations specialist for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. She lives in Richmond, Va., where she is just beginning to delve into the world of gardening.