How could there be too many heuchera?

KENNEWICK -- I was on a garden tour and overheard a nationally known garden writer comment that nurseries were coming out with too many new Huechera cultivars.

So many look alike that he doubted that even the nursery staff could tell one from another.

Heuchera is known to many gardeners as coral bells and is pronounced "HUE-ker-uh." This writer was right, there is a flood of Heuchera making their way onto the garden market and it's definitely hard to discern much of a difference between some. However, are there too many Heucheras? I say no.

I am enamored with the many Heuchera finding their way onto the garden market. If you're not familiar with Heuchera or coral bells, they're members of the Saxifrage family and are native to North America. Coral bells were a perennial plant favored by gardeners for their pink, coral, or red bell-shaped little flowers born on delicate stems a foot or two above a low-growing clump of foliage. These leaves ranged from light green, to dark green, to purple- bronze, often with a silvery markings.

The flowery bells were the feature that attracted most gardeners.

Coral bells transitioned into "Heuchera" in 1991 when Heuchera micrantha 'Palace Purple' was named perennial plant of the year. This plant emerges in the spring with deep reddish purple leaves that turn to bronze in summer. With the introduction of 'Palace Purple,' Heuchera leaves became the star of the show and their flowers only a secondary feature.

With about 50 species in the genus, plant breeders have been able to go wild with their Heuchera breeding efforts. Since 1991, several plant breeders have come up with a multitude of Heuchera with a variety of different colored and variegated foliage, including combinations of lime, bright green, dark green, orange, coral, bronze, chocolate, mahogany, ginger, cinnamon, caramel, copper, amber, black-red, gold, rose, pink, red, plum, burgundy, crimson and ruby red. With these vibrant foliage colors, growing coral bells just for the pretty flowers has been forgotten.

Because the profusion of new hybrids have been created utilizing a number of species from areas of North America, their preferred growing conditions will vary some from cultivar to cultivar. Generally, they prefer a well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil, making them well suited to the alkaline soils in many area gardens. Many Heuchera also prefer a moderately moist soil that contains some organic matter. If you decide to try one, consult its plant care tag to determine if your intended planting site meets its specific needs.

Their preferences of exposure varies too, with many of the newest Heuchera deemed suitable for "full sun or partial shade" on their tags.

However, because of our brutal summer sun and heat, I would recommend planting them where they will receive shade from the afternoon sun.

The premier U.S. Heuchera breeders are Dan Heims of Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon and Charles Oliver of The Primrose Path in Pennsylvania. Using one particular species, they have been able to breed vigorous cultivars that are more tolerant of both heat and sun. As a result they have brought us a perennial that can be grown in the challenging climate found in your and my gardens. Look for one of the multitude of new cultivars at your favorite local nursery and in mail order catalogs.

How can there be too many Heuchera?