Learn about growing the part shade loving coral bells for its beautiful flowers and colorful foliage.
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How To Grow: Coral Bells
Part sun, part shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Late spring to mid summer in colors such as white, red, pink, and coral
Mature Height x Spread
1 to 2 feet x 1 to 2 feet
attracts beneficials, attracts hummingbirds, native, deer resistant
Coral bells are a great option for plants that grow well in shade. I particularly like their colorful leaves and small airy, bell-shaped ornamental flowers that brighten up a dark area. Coral bells have been going through quite a breeding frenzy. The focus has been on creating varieties with more colorful leaves. While the tall, delicate flowers add a touch of whimsy to a perennial flower border, and are loved by butterflies and hummingbirds, it’s the leaves that provide color all season. The multi-colored leaf varieties give this plant versatility when grown in rock gardens, shade gardens, woodlands, or even containers. The leaves can be rounding, lobed or hairy in shape and texture. The flower stalks give a nice touch to flower arrangements.
Where, When and How to Plant
Coral bells are hardy throughout New England, but may need winter protection in the coldest areas. Seed grown coral bells take a long time to grow and flower so it’s best to purchase plants in spring from local garden centers or take divisions from established plants from a friend’s garden. Plant from spring to early fall in a location with some afternoon shade. They don’t flower well in full shade. Plant in well-drained, slightly acidic, humus-rich soil, which stays moist, but not too wet. Space plants 1 foot apart and in groups for the best effect.
Keep plants well watered and fertilize in spring and early fall with an organic plant food. Keep plants well weeded and mulch to keep the soil cool and moist and prevent weed growth.
Regional Advice and Care
In cool summer areas coral bells can take full sun and grow well. Otherwise the colorful foliage will have a washed out appearance. Deadhead flower stalks to prolong the flowering period. Control slugs and snails with iron phosphate baits, beer traps, and copper flashing on containers and raised beds. Protect plants in cold winter areas with pine boughs or bark mulch in winter.
Companion Planting and Design
Plant coral bells with other shade lovers, such as hosta, small astilbe, lungwort, and forget-me-nots. Plant in groups and mix and match leaf colors for a more dramatic effect. Plant in rock gardens and in part shade woodlands as a wildflower plant.
“Electric Lime” has bright lime green leaves and white flowers. “Dolce Creme Brulee” has copper and bronze colored leaves with pink flowers. “Plum Pudding” has purple leaves with silver veins and beautiful pink flower stalks. “Blondie” has red leaves with a tinge of orange and unique yellow flowers that blooms well in to summer. “Ring of Fire” has leaves that start out lime green, then darken with age and have bright red veins and soft pink flowers.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
And now the winner of Perennial Flower of the Year is: Heuchera or coral bells. Yes, coral bells are the National Garden Bureau’s perennial flower of the year and I can’t think of a better choice. This all-American native has species that grow from San Diego to Maine. The plant was named after 18th century German physician, Johann Heinrich von Heucher, whose name is actually pronounced Hoy-ker-uh in his native land.
Coral bells have gone through a revolution in the last 20 years. Most of the breeding involves selecting new varieties for their leaf color and size. Although they have dainty pink, red, or white flowers, it’s the foliage that shines. Coral bell varieties have leaves ranging from 1/2 inch to 12 inches in diameter. There are varieties with purple, amber, gold, lime-green, silver, red, and peach colored leaves just to name a few. The silver patches on many varieties is due to air spaces between the leaf layers which is thought to increase the amount of light the leaves can absorb. Some of my favorite varieties include ‘Plum Pudding’, ‘Amber Waves’, and ‘Lime Rickey’.
Not only are these evergreen perennials hardy and easy to care for, the roots have been used medicinally by Native Americans and the leaves are edible adding a slightly sour taste to salads and sandwiches.
Plant coral bells in part shade, protected from the hot afternoon sun, on well-drained, fertile soil. Plant in groups to create a more dramatic effect. Place the plants in the perennial flower border, in containers or use the leaves in flower arrangements. The leaves can last for months as a cut flower indoors in water and will root overtime.