How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Coral Bells (Heuchera)
Thinking of adding some coral bells to your garden this season? Also known as heuchera, these low growing plants are a garden favorite for their colorful foliage. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsner takes you through each step of growing coral bells, including their maintenance and care.
Coral bells are a leafy marvel. They add texture and color through their brightly colored and sometimes intricate foliage. They provide four-season interest as their foliage stays up in the winter. On Top of all that, they have lovely flowers that rise on delicate stalks throughout the summer.
Heuchera can be grown in zones 4-9, making them available to a lot of gardeners. There are many different Heuchera varieties, and most will thrive across a number of different growing conditions. This makes this little perennial plant incredibly versatile.
If grown in their ideal conditions, coral bells are one of the easiest, least fussy perennials to grow. In my experience, they rarely have problems with pests and diseases. They also do not require much maintenance. So, let’s dig into coral bells and what you need to do to get them to thrive in your garden!
Heuchera Plant Overview
Plant Type Evergreen perennial
Native area North America
Hardiness Zone 4 – 9
Exposure shade – sun
Plant Spacing 1 – 2′
Planting Depth to the crown
Height 8″ – 18″
Width 8″ – 25″
Watering requirements moderate
Pests black vine weevil, voles
Diseases heuchera rust, root rot
Soil Type light, hummus
Attracts bees, butterflies, hummingbirds
Plant with hosta, brun nera, lupine, hellebores, ferns
Coral bells, which are sometimes known as alum root, or Heuchera, were named for the German physician and botanist Johann Heinrich von Heucher.
Heuchera are native to North America. They can be found in every state except Florida. This woodland plant was used for its medicinal properties. It was shipped over to Europe in the 17th century. Now it has become a staple perennial in many gardens, planted mainly as an ornamental.
Coral Bells are members of the saxifrage family, saxifragaceae. This family includes bergenia, false goat’s beard (aka astilbe), and rodgersia, amongst many others. One of the closest relatives to Heuchera is tiarella or foam flower. The two plants have been crossed to create beautiful hybrids known as heucherella.
There are about 50 species of coral bells and hundreds of unique varieties to choose from. Some varieties are known for their striking flowers.
Others have foliage with unique colors or textures. It is no wonder gardeners across the country are so eager to add these plants into their gardens.
There are a few ways to obtain a coral bell plant for your garden. Let’s run through the various ways to get a coral bell.
Let’s start with the easiest way, purchasing one from a garden center or nursery. You will find them in the shade section near hostas, astilbe, and other shade perennials.
Make sure to take into consideration the foliage color, the flower color, and the size of the coral bell you want to purchase. I love mixing and matching different varieties to create a really beautiful tapestry of texture and color in the garden.
Another consideration is what conditions you will be growing them in. If you are growing them in a sunnier area, opt for a variety with darker foliage. They can handle more sun. Alternatively, lighter-colored varieties do better in shader areas.
If heat and humidity is a concern for you, find a variety that has been bred to withstand these conditions. ‘Caramel’ is a more heat-tolerant variety.
Bare Root Heuchera
You can also order bare root Heuchera. You can usually find these in seed and bulb catalogs. I recommend going this route if you want to save money or if you want a very specific variety. These catalogs usually have some of the more unique varieties.
When you receive your bare root coral bell you will want to soak it in water overnight to prepare it for planting. Then make sure to plant the crown just below the soil line (more information in the how to plant section).
Dividing Heuchera is easy to do. Once your coral bell is large and you want to divide it, simply dig it up and split it with your shovel or trowel. Plant the original plant back into the ground and get the divided piece planted into its new spot asap. Water both the original and divided plant well.
You may also notice there are offsets growing from the woody crown of a coral bell. These shoots can be dug up and transplanted without disturbing the mother plant.
You can grow Heuchera from seed. Unless you really love the seed-starting process, I recommend saving time and energy by going with one of the previous methods. If you are harvesting your own seeds from your coral bells, they won’t come true to the parent plant. This means you will get a different type of coral bell. Some hybrids are sterile and cannot be grown from seed.
If you have purchased coral bell seeds or collected some, you can grow them. Start with a seed starting tray with evenly moist soilless mix and sprinkle the seeds on top of the soil.
The seeds are very small so be careful not to over-pour. You’ll need to thin out the seedlings later on if there are too many. Give them a light stir into the soil and don’t bury them deeply.
Coral bell seeds need light to germinate. Cover the seeds with a clear dome to keep the moisture in. Check every day or two. Spray them lightly with water if they are drying out. They should germinate in eight weeks or less.
Now bring them under a grow light or bright window. Take the dome off and let them grow. Thin them down to one plant per cell. Let them keep growing so the roots can establish themselves.
If you are using very small seed trays, you may need to transplant the plant into large containers. Try to disturb the newly growing roots as little as possible when potting them up. Plant them out in the garden once the danger of frost has passed.
Make sure to harden off any seedlings that are grown indoors. This means you will need to introduce them slowly to outdoor conditions.
Start with putting seedlings in the shade for a few hours. Gradually add more time and then add some sun (not full sun, since Heuchera are not full sun plants). After about a week, they should be ready. Keep them watered through the entire process. If at any time they look droopy and sad, move them back to the shade or indoors.
Planting a coral bell into your garden is fairly straightforward. Dig a hole as deep as the plant or bare root and twice as wide. Take your coral bells out of its pot. Make sure to ‘scruff’ the root ball. You do not want the root ball to be in the shape of the pot.
If you plant in this fashion, the roots will continue to grow in a circle and will choke and stunt the plant. Allow the roots to grow outwards. You may only need to break it up a little. But it may be really rootbound. In that case, you may need to cut the bottom mat of the root right off.
If purchasing a plant from a greenhouse, check the bottom of the pot. Try to not choose plants that have thick mats of roots growing out the bottom. These plants are root bound.
Next, place the plant or bare root into the hole. Mix the existing soil with some compost, aged manure, sea soil, or worm castings. You can also sprinkle in a transplant fertilizer at this time. Fill in the hole. Plant a plant up to the crown. If you are planting a bare root, plant the top of it about one inch under the soil.
Water in the plant well. Keep watering more often for the first season so the roots can establish. Even when fully grown, these perennials grow low to the ground, even after their first season.
How to Grow
Coral bells are a relatively easy perennial to grow if you have it growing in ideal conditions. Let’s examine these conditions further.
Coral bells are fairly versatile when it comes to sunlight requirements. Part shade-part sun is the sweet spot for Heuchera. Especially a partial sun location that has some protection from the extra hot afternoon rays.
Morning sunlight is great, and an eastern exposure is ideal. I usually plant Heuchera in my shade garden with hosta, brunnera, and ferns. They all like that part shade area in your garden.
You can plant Heuchera in full sun. If this is your only option, I recommend getting a darker leaf variety, like Primo ‘Black Pearl’ which has leaves that almost look black. Darker leaves tolerate more sun. Also, be prepared to water your coral bell more. Too much sun and not enough water will lead to crispy leaves.
Heuchera will grow in the shade, just slower. Make sure they aren’t in a damp shady area, as they do not tolerate soggy soil.
Coral bells thrive in rich, loose soil. Loose soil means that it can drain easily. They do not do well in heavy clay soil. To do a quick check on your soil, grab a handful of it and squeeze it in your hands. If the soil stays in a ball, it is full of clay.
You will need to amend your soil before planting. Use a combination of coconut coir or peat moss and some sort of organic matter (compost, aged manure, worm casting, sea soil). Work this into the soil to create loose soil that can absorb and drain water.
If this process seems like too much for you, opt to plant your Heuchera in pots or raised beds where you can use plain old potting mix. If you already have an established garden full of hostas, ferns, or other shade perennials, you should be fine to add in Heuchera. These plants all prefer rich free-draining soils.
Coral bells are fairly drought tolerant once they are established. A newly planted one will require more frequent watering throughout its first year. It is hard to determine the exact amount of water because of factors such as rainfall, temperature, and soil quality.
I would water a newly planted coral bell every few days in the beginning (more if it’s hot). Then your regular watering schedule will be fine. Do not overwater, as this will lead to root rot.
Also, if possible, water directly at the soil line and not with overhead sprinklers. I use a drip hose snaked through my garden. I turn it on once or twice a week for a few hours.
This gives my plants a nice slow and deep watering and doesn’t get their foliage unnecessarily wet. Constantly wet foliage can lead to fungi, such as powdery mildew and Heuchera rust.
Climate and Temperature Requirements
Coral bells are hardy in zones 4-9. Although I will say I live in zone 3 and I can grow them. Make sure to pick a protected area of the garden and pile leaves or mulch onto your coral bells in the fall if you are in a lower zone.
Also, I find they heave up in the spring. You may have to dig them back in, or mound soil around them so their roots aren’t exposed.
For the warmer zones, I recommend finding a variety that is a bit more heat resistant. Try ‘Georgia Peach’, it was bred to withstand hot and humid southern weather.
Also, make sure to plant Heuchera in an area that receives lots of afternoon shade. They will also require more water. I also find they do better when they are part of a lush garden ecosystem, not just planted here and there on their own.
I don’t fertilize perennial beds. I prefer keeping the soil healthy by natural means. This means adding compost, aged manure, sea soil, or worm castings into the soil. I usually do this in the fall, but early spring works too. This will ensure all my plants in the garden have a rich supply of nutrients. Soil is a living entity, so feeding it with organic matter is best.
If you are fertilizing, use a granular fertilizer and sprinkle it around the base of your plants in the spring.
Coral bells are a fairly low-maintenance perennial plant. They are semi-evergreen, which means depending on the winter they will keep their leaves. If you had a particularly cold and snowy winter and the leaves are brown and crispy, just snip them off, and new growth will appear.
You can prune off their flowers after they bloom in the summer. Sometimes I leave them because they still look good after they bloom. I prune them off in fall. Some varieties I do not like the flowers on, so I will snip them off as they appear to focus on the foliage.
There are so many different varieties of Heuchera. They are so fun to pair up and play with in your garden design. There are many different coral bell varieties to choose from, and below are some of the most popular to consider.
‘Lime Rickey’ is a bright green variety of coral bell that brightens up the shade. This variety features small ruffled leaves and spikes of small pale ivory flowers.
Bright green coral bells are a great way to break up the overwhelming medium green color we often see in shade gardens. Other bright green/yellow varieties of coral bells include ‘Lemon Love’ and ‘Lime Marmalade’.
‘Tokyo’ has bright green foliage that is lightly frosted silver. It then blooms lots of stalks of bright cherry red colored flowers. This one really shines in the garden.
\Other varieties that are known for their bright red blossoms are ‘Huntsman’ and ‘Peppermint Spice’.
‘Georgia Peach’ has beautiful peach-colored foliage that will deepen to a copper red color as the season wears on. It blooms dainty cream-colored flowers.
This variety is especially tolerant of heat and humidity. Other reddish orange varieties to consider are ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Caramel’.
Pests and Diseases
I really had to dig deep to find some pests and diseases that can attack your coral bells. The good news is, when grown in their ideal conditions, coral bells remain fairly disease and pest free.
In fact, I’ve never had a problem with any of my coral bells over the years. Of course, they are not immune to pests and disease. Here are a few things that could be destroying your Heuchera.
Voles seem to be the main culprit when it comes to coral bell pests. These little rodents dig holes and tunnel around through the garden. They will feast on the roots and stems of Heuchera. If you come across your coral bell lying on the ground and it is detached from the crown, it is likely voles had it for a snack.
If you have a vole problem, I recommend doing a thorough fall clean-up. I’m not usually an advocate for cleaning everything in the fall. But all the leaf litter on the ground is the perfect home for voles.
To rid your garden of voles, you will most likely need to trap them. You can use live traps to trap and release them, or you can use mouse traps. You can also try spraying areas of your garden with a repellent. These are available to purchase at garden centers. Make sure to reapply after it rains.
Black Vine Weevil
Black vine weevils are another reason your coral bells could be suffering. These bugs are small black bugs with oval bodies. You may not actually see them as they will do their feeding at night. If you notice the margins of your coral bell is chewed irregularly and there are holes throughout the leaves, this weevil might be the culprit.
These pests will eventually lay eggs in the soil, and they will feast on the roots. You will end up with piles of foliage on the ground, much like you would with vole damage.
An effective treatment of black vine weevil is using nematodes. These can be purchased from most specialty garden centers. Apply them near the base of the plant in the early spring to help break the cycle.
If your coral bells are starting to look like they’re, well, rusting, you might be dealing with a fungus that causes Heuchera rust. Symptoms include brown spots on the leaves. These spots might be raised and can be orange or white in color. New leaves will appear shriveled and malformed.
As with all fungus, too humid of conditions is often the culprit. To prevent rust from forming, make sure you leave space in between your plants to allow for adequate airflow. Also, water your coral bells directly at the soil line.
Overhead watering leaves foliage wet and is a breeding ground for fungus. If you are overhead watering, do it in the morning as opposed to at night. This will allow the sun to dry the leaves right away instead of letting them sit wet through the night.
Promptly remove any infected leaves and sterile your tools to avoid cross-contamination. If the rust is really bad, remove the plant and dispose of (not compost) it. There are fungicides on the market that can be sprayed onto the plant. Spray in spring and spray the new growth. Heuchera Rust will infect coral bells and other plants in the saxifrage family.
Root rot is caused by too much water. Coral bells need to be planted in soil that can drain freely. If you notice your coral bells’ leaves are turning brown and then the plant is rotting, it is probably root rot. If you notice this and catch it in time, you can dig up your coral bell.
Cut any brown and slimy roots and then transplant into free-draining soil. If there isn’t anywhere suitable in your garden, consider putting them in raised beds or containers (with drainage holes). Fill raised beds and containers with light, fluffy potting mix.
If you want to amend your beds to make them well-draining, add peat moss or coconut coir in with compost. You can purchase a triple mix blend that has soil, peat, and compost premixed. Work this into your garden beds before planting coral bells.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the optimal growing conditions?
Heuchera, or coral bells, like part sun conditions with rich well drained soil. They don’t like being in standing water. They also don’t like the full hot blazing sun. An eastern exposed garden would be ideal where they get the gentle morning sun. Make sure the soil has lots of organic matter and is light and fluffy. Water, but not too much. I find anywhere you plant hostas, you can plant Heuchera.
Can heuchera tolerate morning sun?
Yes! Morning sun is ideal for coral bells. They prefer more gentle sun. Full sun can bleach the leaves or make them crispy.
Should coral bells be divided?
Yes. Once your coral bells start getting thick woody on the crown it can be divided. Do this in the early spring, or the fall. You can see the crown of a coral bell at the surface. You will also be able to see shoots of growth off the main plant. These offsets can be dug out and transplanted. Alternatively, you can dig up your coral bell and split it with your shovel. Replant both new plants. Make sure to water in any new transplants well.
Do I cut them back in winter?
No, these perennials are considered semi evergreen. This means they will keep their leaves through the winter. However, in a particularly snowy winter the leaves might turn brown and crispy by spring. If that’s the case, simply clip the leaves off and new growth will emerge from the crown.
Do coral bells work in pots?
Yes! Coral bells are one of my favorite filler plants. They add color and texture to a container through their foliage. This means they can provide four-season interest in a container. Choose fun color varieties such as ‘Electra’ or ‘Venus’ to containers.
Coral bells are a fantastic all-purpose garden plant. The various colors of foliage make them an attractive four-season perennial. The long stalks of flowers that rise out of them in the summer are dainty and pretty.
I enjoy softening landscape rocks by planting coral bells along the edges. I also like breaking up all the medium green colors often found in shade gardens with a purple or orange coral bell. They also make a great filler plant in a container. This little perennial is so versatile and hardy, that it’s hard to go wrong with growing any variety.