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Archive for May 14th, 2010

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.

Heuchera 'tiramisu'

Heuchera 'Dolce Peach Melba'

Heuchera americans 'Dale's strain'

Heuchers 'Dolce Black Currant'

Heuchera 'Berry Smoothie'

Heuchera 'Miracle'

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When I went out to feed the horses this morning, I glanced up and there was a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) sitting on the barn roof, looking back at me. We eyed each other for a minute, and then I started to back towards the house to retrieve my camera. Sensing my intentions, the vulture took off and quickly disappeared. Jeez. You hardly dare leave the house without photographic equipment.

Fortunately, I took my camera with me when I strolled down to the pond yesterday and I was able to get a few pictures of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus).

It would have been hard to miss their presence. The two birds were engaged in a tumbling chase amongst the trees, weaving in and out of the branches, and pausing to posture with tail outspread. At first I wasn’t sure if I was watching two males battling over territory, or a male and a female courting. After watching them for a while, I concluded it was the latter.

The chase was rapid and intense. The two birds paid no heed to me except to move their performance to a tree a bit farther away. Whenever their energetic chase paused, I could see the display of fanned tailfeathers, showing off the distinctive Kingbird white stripe along the bottom edge of the tail.

When I headed back to the house, they were still at it. Hopefully, they’ll settle in and nest nearby. I wasnt’ the only spectator. This Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) sat on the fence and seemed impressed by the performance.

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