There is little reason not to love the colorful, pollinator-attracting genus Heuchera. Commonly known as coral bells after the shape of the adorable flowers, these reliable perennials are staples in any garden bed.
Coral bells are not fussy plants and can generally thrive in most conditions. Make sure you choose the right species for your environment for the best results. Most grow in USDA Zones 4-9, but there are certain varieties suitable for other zones too. They can handle most soil types (except extremely sandy or heavy clay soils) and require around an inch of water per week along with the rest of your garden. Plant them in a partially shaded spot where they get enough sunlight to produce their lovely blooms, but not so much that the leaves are scalded and lose their color.
Read on to learn all about growing and caring for Coral Bells!
Coral Bells Basics
Coral bells, the common name for plants in the Heuchera genus, are wonderful foliage plants often grown in home gardens for their fiery colors. These perennials are incredibly low maintenance and fill out beds with ease.
Their foliage is not the only aesthetic benefit these plants provide. They also produce adorable bell-shaped flowers atop long stems, hence their common name. The flowers attract a number of pollinators to the garden, including hummingbirds, when they emerge in spring and early summer.
Heucheras are also commonly known as alumroot in some areas and are part of the Saxifragaceae family along with other garden plants like Astilbe. Native habitats are varied among the different species, providing a wide range of differences in shape, color, size and growth habit.
Most coral bells grow in USDA ranges 4-9, although there is plenty of variation between species. If you live in a warmer more tropical climate, look for options that can grow well in Zones 10 and 11. Some are evergreen plants while others are labeled semi-evergreen. You also have plenty of choices in foliage color, from red to purple and even bronze.
Coral bells are also great plants for beginners as they are not fussy and tolerate a wide range of conditions. As long as their general environmental needs are met, they should thrive in your garden year after year with very little effort.
Planting Coral Bells
There are two ideal times to plant coral bells – fall and early spring. Planting in fall gives the plants time to establish before spring the next season, increasing your chances of flowering. However, these perennials grow just as well when planted in spring as soon as the worst cold of winter is over.
These versatile plants can grow in many different areas of the garden, from containers to woodland environments and more. They add wonderful pops of color to shaded areas and pair well with many other bedding plants that appreciate similar conditions.
Before planting, make sure to check the expected size of your chosen species and cultivar. This will allow you to space them correctly, preventing overcrowding and lowering your risk of disease. Amend the soil with plenty of compost before you start to improve soil health and nutrient availability.
Sunlight Requirements For Coral Bells
While exact requirements differ between species, most coral bells appreciate partially shaded areas thanks to their woodland-type habitats. Dappled shade under trees is recommended, although the tree canopy above shouldn’t be so dense that it casts deep shadows as the plant will not flower.
For partially shaded areas, a few hours of morning sun is best rather than afternoon sun. This light level is far less harsh than midday or afternoon sun, protecting the plants from heat stress and maintaining color.
If the light levels are too high around your coral bells, they may still grow but will lose some of their color and vigor. They may also become stressed more easily, leaving them vulnerable to problems with pests and diseases.
On the other hand, deep shade is also not recommended. In these conditions, the plant will struggle to grow and won’t produce blooms. It can also lead to waterlogging in the soil due to cooler conditions and lower evaporation that may lead to root and stem rot, especially soon after planting.
Watering Coral Bells In Pots
Much like other perennials in your garden, Coral Bells need around an inch of water per week. They generally prefer their soil lightly moist (not waterlogged) soil, but can also tolerate a couple of days without water if you forget.
Make sure to take rain in your region into account. In periods of high rainfall, avoid watering and make sure there is no excess moisture pooling around your plants. When there is limited rainfall and when temperatures are high, water more often to keep the plants happy. As soon as you notice leaves starting to droop and soil that is very dry to the touch, water immediately.
Coral bells also have relatively shallow root systems. You can generally judge the levels of moisture in the soil by the top layer, allowing you to water when needed. In sunnier spots, the soil will dry out much quicker, requiring watering more often. You can counteract the increased evaporation by mulching around the base of the plant in spring.
Heucheras are also prone to fungal diseases when watered incorrectly. Never water the plant from above and avoid the use of sprinklers. Any water that collects on the leaves can encourage fungal problems. Water the soil only or use drip irrigation in beds to deliver water straight to the roots.
Temperature & Humidity Requirements Of Coral Bells
As mentioned before, most coral bells grow in USDA Zones 4-9. Some can grow in Zone 3, while others have the ability to handle the higher temperatures in Zone 11 with ease. Check the specific requirements of your species and cultivar to make sure they are suitable for your garden.
Coral bells that are suitable for lower zones don’t usually require winter protection. However, those best grown in higher zones benefit from a layer of warming mulch in the winter. The leaves may die back slightly, but growth will resume again in spring.
Prone to fungal problems like powdery mildew in the wrong climates, these plants generally don’t appreciate high humidity. Some species can tolerate it better than others, so again, make sure to match your chosen species to your garden environment. With so much variety, there is likely to be an option perfectly suited to your conditions.
Fertilizing Coral Bells
Although they are not heavy feeders, coral bells will grow best when given a general fertilizer once per year in the spring. If you’ve planted in nutrient-rich soil this may not be necessary soon after planting, but will help after successive seasons of growth.
Slow-release fertilizers are recommended as they release nutrients over time. This will provide a continuous supply across the season, just in time for flowering in late spring and early summer. Pair this with a layer of compost around the base as a mulch to improve soil structure and organic activity.
No matter which brand or type of fertilizer you choose, always make sure to read the instructions on the packaging exactly. Overfertilizing will hinder growth rather than help it. Excess nutrients in the soil can also inhibit flowering and are difficult to fix, so make sure to only apply as much as the plants need.
Pruning Coral Bells
Coral bells generally don’t require much pruning or additional maintenance. To improve the overall look of the plant, you can trim off the flowers as they begin to fade, although this will not encourage repeat flowering. It will simply take the energy used to develop seeds and direct it back into the other flowers.
While they are generally labeled evergreen plants, some coral bell leaves may die back in winter in colder climates. To keep the plant tidy, you can trim these leaves back slightly, but make sure to cover the plant with frost protection fabric afterward to prevent further damage.
If you can handle a little mess in the garden, it’s better for the health of the plant to wait until spring to ensure a quick recovery and to make sure no vulnerable new growth will become damaged.
Propagating Coral Bells
After 3-4 years, your coral bells may begin to look diminished. They may also struggle to perform and flower. This is the ideal time to propagate these plants by division.
Division can be done in fall or spring. Fall is usually recommended to allow the plants to establish before the growing season, but either time is suitable. Avoid planting in winter when the ground is hard and cold, or in summer when the heat will result in stress.
To divide, dig up the entire plant from the base. It should lift easily due to the shallow root system. Trim the plant into separate sections, with the amount depending on the size of the plant. Each section should have enough roots and shoots to grow on its own. For older plants, the underperforming center can be composted.
Replant each section with enough spacing to allow for adequate airflow and to prevent fungal disease. Amend the soil before planting to give your divisions the best start.
At the end of the season, you can also collect seeds to replant the following season. However, it’s best not to collect seeds from hybrid cultivars as they may grow unreliably. It does make for a fun gardening experiment as you don’t know what kind of plant you’ll get, but if you’re looking for strong and reliable plants, avoid growing from collected seeds and purchase them from a reputable grower instead.
Pests & Diseases Affecting Coral Bells
Coral bells are usually pest and disease free in the right environments. However, if humidity is high, the plants are incorrectly spaced, or if you water incorrectly, you may notice fungal issues popping up.
Look out for powdery mildew in particular that can cover the leaves and inhibit photosynthesis. Practice good garden hygiene and space plants well to prevent these issues from taking hold.