Coral bells, and their relatives, alumroot, are members of the genus Heuchera (pronounced HEW-ker-ah). There are some 50 species in the genus, all of them native to North America. The name Heuchera was given to the genus by Carolus Linnaeus to honor Johann Heinrich von Heucher, who, like Linnaeus, was both a physician and professor of botany.
When I first started gardening, 30-odd years ago, some of the first plants I bought were coral bells. Back then, perennials weren’t as available as they are now, and there was just one variety of coral bells down at the local nursery. The coral bells that first graced my garden had plain green leaves. Their main claim to fame was the cloud of pretty coral-pink flowers they produced in early summer.
Some years after my first encounter with coral bells, a new variety called “Palace Purple” began to appear at nurseries. As the name suggests, it has deep brownish-purple leaves and is believed to be a cross of Heuchera micrantha, H villosa hybrid, and H. americana. However, its exact parentage is disputed. It was discovered as a seedling in the 1970s at Kew Gardens in London. The palace it was named for is Kew Palace. In 1991, the Perennial Plant Association named Purple Palace as Plant of the Year. Palace Purple is now the most commonly available heuchera at nurseries and big box stores in this area.
Since Purple Palace appeared, hybridizers have been working hard on the genus. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of heuchera species. Unlike the early version of coral bells that I had in my garden, new hybrids are now more noteworthy for their colourful foliage than their flowers. When I saw ‘Berry Smoothie’ at a nursery, I had to have it in my garden. I had an opening in an appropriate part-shade spot in my garden and decided to highlight a few of these hybrids this spring. On dull days, their leaves shine like little jewels and I enjoy walking by them every day.