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"Collecting" Plants

by Bob Sampson

Palace Purple Heuchera
Palace Purple Heuchera.

Just as with stamps, coins, cars, paintings and other collectibles, plants have their own attractions to the collector, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"People collect things because of an attraction to the colors, styles, rarity, or just because they like them,'" explained Greg Stack. "In the world of plants, collecting is also a passion and has drawn together its own loyal following.

"Plant collectors collect for the same reasons as other collectors. The one exception is that plant collectors display their collectibles for all to see and enjoy in a place called a garden."

Many plants have their own groups, societies, or clubs that represent the particular plant and fuel the collector's passion.

An area of plant collecting that may not be well known but is nonetheless filled with hundreds of offerings and is starting to draw fans is Heuchera.

"Heuchera, or as they are more commonly known, coral bells, have seen an explosion of new cultivars since the very first ones came on the gardening scene in the early 1990s," said Stack. "Since then, every new gardening season has seen new Heuchera arrive to satisfy the taste of plant lovers worldwide.

"No plant has undergone such a dramatic resurgence in the garden. Ever since Heuchera 'Palace Purple' became a household word in perennials, the plant has made its presence known."

What makes the plant so attractive is its color, achieved mainly through foliage, as well as its neat habit, diverse leaf shapes, relatively low maintenance, and its ability to find a place in almost any garden, he added.

Heuchera prefers a semi-shaded site with some cultivars doing very well in sun locations, provided soil moisture is not limiting. Soil that is well-drained, yet retains some moisture for good growth and foliage appearance, is preferred.

"Working in organic matter to the soil prior to planting helps ensure a nice display of Heuchera," Stack said. "These plants have a neat mounding habit, making them great as companions with other shade-loving plants. They will also provide a nice display of flowers in colors of red, pink, and white above the foliage. These flowers are displayed in large panicles lasting four to eight weeks.

"Removing old flowers often results in re-blooming. The plants are also a nice addition to mixed containers, adding colors and textures to enhance the container."

With a color palette ranging from near black to orange to reds, purples, silver, and chartreuse, there is no reason for the garden to be without color from spring to fall. Many Heuchera also tend to be semi-evergreen during the winter months, thus providing some color even through the snow.

To start off on your collecting journey, Stack suggests some Heuchera to consider.

"Keep in mind that these are only the tip of the Heuchera world," he noted. "'Peach Flambé' has large, glossy leaves that combine the oranges, yellows, and pinks of your favorite peach dessert. 'Peach Flambe' likes a shady garden and grows to about 16 inches.

"'Stormy Seas' has ruffled foliage of silver, lavender, pewter, and charcoal grey. The leaves often look like the dark waves of a very angry sea. 'Stormy Seas' grows well in sun to light shade and is considered one of the better landscape Heuchera."

He also recommends "Lime Rickey," which is about as chartreuse as chartreuse can get, he noted. Its ruffled foliage lights up a garden and does well in light to full shade.

"'Midnight Rose' can add 'pop' to the garden with its dark, wine-red foliage with hot pink spots," Stack said. "Now if that is not on everybody's collector's list, I don't know what would be. This Heuchera is good for sun to light-shade areas.

"'Green Spice' is a good Heuchera for the shade. The dark gray-edged silver leaves have dark red veins for a bold color contrast. 'Amber Waves' has been around for a while and is still drawing attention. The stunning amber gold foliage is highly ruffled. The color tends to get better in the spring but is always a great addition to the semi-shaded garden."

All of these plants, he added, are good for the perennial border and even as accents in the annual garden, bringing unique color to the garden.

"So has the collector 'bug' bitten you yet?" Stack asked. "If not, it will once you stand face to face with the latest of the collectible plants. And, as any collector knows, you can't stop at just one."


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