Heuchera 'Blondie': Coral Bells Returns as a Blonde

Flowers, Foliage Provide Colorful Landscaping Option

Heuchera 'Blondie' in bloom.
David Beaulieu

There was a time when one grew coral bells for its flowers. Indeed, the plant's chief common name derives from the fact that a type that was popular early on, Heuchera sanguinea, has coral-colored, bell-shaped blooms. Now, after years of developing cultivars grown for their colorful foliage, plant breeders have introduced Heuchera 'Blondie,' a cultivar that has put the flowers front and center again.

One might say that coral bells, formerly a redhead, has returned as a blonde, having acquired, in addition to the dye job, a stunning outfit (namely, that colorful foliage).

A Little History on Coral Bells

The genus is native to North America. An alternate common name for this perennial is "alum root," due to its medicinal properties. According to the National Garden Bureau (NGB), Native Americans used it as a vulnerary. That is, like, for example, yarrow, goldenrod, sweet woodruff and spotted deadnettle, coral bells' traditional use was as a staunching agent, an herb used to stop the flow of blood from a wound. 

Although many of us have incurred wounds in the garden (have you ever cut yourself pruning?), gardeners have not generally grown coral bells for use as a vulnerary. We have been more interested in its value as an ornamental. It was traditionally planted, for example, in woodland gardens, perhaps as a companion plant for impatiens or hosta. We started out primarily with H. americana and H. sanguinea, but one could get only so excited by those tiny, bell-shaped flowers.

Enter the plant breeders, who have been going to work on the color and shape (see below) of coral bells' leaves in earnest since the inception of the dark-leaved H. villosa 'Palace Purple' in 1980, according to NGB. Year after year, garden catalogs have treated us to a myriad of new hybrids, giving us exciting leaf colors to ogle at to help us overcome the winter blues: bronze, burgundy, purple, chartreuse, gold, lime-green, peach, tan, salmon, etc. In fact, the common name "coral bells," while still in use, became embarrassingly inappropriate: flowers were taking a back seat to foliage for a while.

Since then, however, attempts have been made to produce standouts on both scores, and Heuchera 'Blondie' is one example.

What's So Special About This Blondie Heuchera?

Heuchera 'Blondie' is considered a breakthrough because of its yellow flowers, just as gardeners have long been looking for a black rose, a pink Annabelle hydrangea, etc. But do not be concerned, you lovers of foliage plants: Heuchera 'Blondie' still has those colorful leaves that you have come to associate with this genus.

One could, however, take issue somewhat with the typical description given for the leaf color. Almost invariably, you will see it described as "caramel." Now, to be sure, the plant does bear caramel-colored leaves for part of the year. But, by autumn, the leaves turn decidedly darker, thanks to a generous infusion of a reddish color. Not that this fact in any way detracts from the plant's ornamental value: On the contrary, some prefer the darker leaves, which contrast nicely with the creamy yellow flowers. The leaves are evergreen to semi-evergreen.

Flowers may appear as early as May, and blooming continues through October. This long-blooming perennial is one of the last flowers in the landscape to stop blooming in fall. Mature plants will have numerous flower stalks (as many as 20) which add about 8 inches to the foliar clump; the latter stands about 5 inches on its own. The diminutive size qualifies the plant as a miniature. In the picture, notice the rich red color of the flower stalks, a third aesthetic feature to value.

Planting and Care Tips for Blondie Heuchera and Similar Plants

The traditional type of coral bells was grown in shade. Some of the newer types will take quite a bit of sun in the North (and may even demand it for optimal leaf color), although a spot with dappled shade is probably still a safer location in hot climates. Either way, provide a soil with a neutral pH to mildly acidic pH that also drains well.

These are general rules to guide you, but, with so many types of Heucheras -- and a similarly staggering number of Heucherellas -- now on the market, it is really best to research the particular type that you are considering buying, rather than relying on generalizations regarding growing conditions. But a typical recommendation for growing Heuchera 'Blondie' is to give it full sun from midday till evening during the summer months.

Keep the soil moderately moist and fertilize with compost. Remove flower stalks after they are done blooming to channel energy into foliar growth. Planting zones for this genus are generally listed as 4-9. Avoid burying the crown with soil. Likewise, although gardeners in the extreme North should mulch these plants (about 3 inches deep) after the growing season to afford winter protection, do not apply mulch directly over the crown. Divide this perennial to rejuvenate it every few years.

What Role Can Blondie Heuchera Serve in Your Landscaping?

First of all, no matter how you choose to use Heuchera 'Blondie' in your landscaping, remember that small plants like this often get lost in the landscape unless you mass them together. Massing in such a case makes the difference between a plant's being a lively specimen (collectively) versus its being a retiring wallflower.

As a short plant, Heuchera 'Blondie' is a possible choice for a small rock garden, where it could perhaps be paired with, for example, Pasque flower: The coarse texture of the former's leaves will create a textural contrast with the latter's more delicate leaf structure. More broadly, it can be used as a ground cover or as an edging plant. To show it off for optimal effect, some grow it in containers.

Nor should you underestimate its utility as simply a low-growing filler plant, that is, a well-behaved plant that is unobtrusive yet bears colorful foliage, the sort of thing you might stick between perennials that look great early in the season but then leave a "hole" in your flower border. Moreover, the leaves, being semi-evergreen to evergreen, afford winter interest (when there is not deep snow, at least).

For those of you who want nice landscaping but are too busy to bother with fussy plants, you may be most impressed by the fact that coral bells is the type of plant that will not add much to your landscape-maintenance burden. Conversely, if you are a homebody who likes nothing better than to observe wildlife interacting with your landscaping, know that Heuchera 'Blondie' attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.

It's All About the Color

But the possibilities outlined above only scratch the surface when it comes to using coral bells in your landscaping. Let's get down to brass tacks: It is really all about the color.

Dark-leaved types of coral bells contrast well with plants of a lighter color, while the types with light-colored leaves are a good foil for so-called "black plants." Below are listed some examples, grouped by leaf color. Diversity is particularly strong in the ranks of the light-colored types. Thus we should distinguish those that are golden, lime-green or chartreuse (call them the "Golden Group") from the rest (call them the "Peach Group") by granting them their own, separate categories:

Dark-Leaved Coral Bells (Bronze, Burgundy, Purple, Etc.)

  • 'Obsidian'
  • 'Brownies'
  • 'Blackberry Jam'
  • 'Bronze Wave'
  • 'Blackcurrant'
  • 'Velvet Night'

The Golden Group (Types With, Golden, Lime-Green, Chartreuse Leaves)

  • 'Lime Rickey'
  • 'Tiramisu'
  • 'Citronelle'

The Peach Group (Types With Peach, Tan, Salmon Leaves)

  • 'Caramel'
  • 'Amber Waves'
  • 'Peach Flambe'
  • 'Georgia Peach'

The Color Parade Continues

Some types of coral bells exhibit a silvery overlay. An example is 'Pewter Veil.' Yet another variation comes in the form of variegated types. If that term is taken loosely, there are many types that are variegated. But even if we restrict ourselves to those in green and white, we can point to examples such as H. sanguinea 'Snow Fire.'

Don't Forget Leaf Shape!

To add to this menagerie, there is also another quality to consider: the shapes of the leaves. That is, some types of coral bells have ruffled leaves. This fact is sometimes apparent from the name, as in:

  • 'Lime Ruffles'
  • 'Crimson Curls'
  • 'Chocolate Ruffles'
  • 'Midnight Ruffles'