April’s explosion of annuals and perennials marked the beginning of the flower season. Silhouettes from the winter garden had disappeared, and the shady areas continued to deepen as new leaves filled in the crowns of trees. At the Gardens at Heather Farm, native Heuchera maxima blooms during late spring and early summer.
The genus Heuchera (pronounced HOY-ker-uh), a member of the Saxifragaceae family, is native to the United States. Though sometimes called coral bells because of its tiny bell-shaped flowers, Heuchera gets its genus name from an 18th-century German professor of medicine and botany, Johann Heinrich von Heucher. California is home to 15 species, as well as many new cultivars. Native species grow in a variety of habitats, ranging from below 500 feet to 10,000 feet, though the Heucheras at high altitudes can be quite small.
Heuchera maxima, the largest of the California species, is also known as alum root. Hundreds of delicate creamy-white flowers fill the 3-foot-tall magenta stems, which rise above clumps of crinkled, heart-shaped leaves. As the flowers age and seed heads form, they turn reddish-pink, making it hard to distinguish whether the flowers are pink or white.
Happy in a garden with clay soil, Heuchera maxima performs best with some afternoon shade in our climate. Though drought-tolerant, it also can handle a little summer water. At Heather Farm, it is planted in the shade garden, which receives summer water, as well as in the East Bay Municipal Utility District water conservation garden, planted under valley oaks. The EBMUD garden plants thrive without summer water, but are a bit smaller than the irrigated plants.
The Heuchera at the Gardens at Heather Farm don’t have pest or disease problems. Tiny white hairs on the stems deter most insects. Hummingbirds often visit the flowers. If allowed to go to seed, Heuchera will naturalize prolifically in the garden.
— Patrice Hanlon