Coral bells is an herbaceous evergreen perennial that grows from a woody rootstock, producing a mounded clump 12-24 in (30-60 cm) tall and about a foot (30 cm) or a little more across. The leaves emanate from the base of the plant and are borne on long petioles. They are rounded with shallow lobes, often nearly 5-sided in outline, and about 1-3 in (2.5-7.5 cm) long. The leaves usually are a very attractive dark green with lighter green marbling. The little bright red flowers are in loose panicles to 6 in (15 cm) long atop slender stems that stand well above the foliage. The flowering stems (called scapes) usually bear a few small leaves. The individual flowers are only a half inch (13 mm) long and the bright red petals are shorter than the red sepals which are fused at their bases, forming a bell that surrounds the petals. It is this nodding bell shaped calyx that first meets the eye.
Many cultivars have been selected. ‘Grandiflora’ is a larger, more robust plant with larger flowers than the species. ‘Alba’ and ‘Virginalis’ have white flowers; ‘Splendens’ is a popular and widely available cultivar with bright red flowers; ‘Maxima’ flowers are wine-red; those of ‘Oxfordii’ are blood red; and the leaves of ‘Variegata’ are variegated with white.
Heuchera sanguinea is one of the parents of H. X brizoides, a hybrid swarm with a great many named selections, including those with red, orange, pink, white, and even greenish flowers, and coming in a variety of sizes and habits. Many of the so-called coral bells we find in garden centers and nurseries actually belong to this hybrid species. Selections of H. X brizoides have been crossed with the closely related foam flowers, Tiarella wherryi and T. cordifolia, to create the hybrid genus X Heucherella and its two species, X Heucherella alba and X H. tiarelloides, respectively.
The original species, Heuchera sanguinea, grows wild in the mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico and parts of nearby Mexico. Its favorite habitat is on and alongside rocks in moist, semi-shady environments.
Culture Light: Grow coral bells in full sun in zones 3-6 and partial shade in zones 7 and 8.
Moisture: Coral bells does best with regular watering and tends to suffer during dry spells. It likes a rich, moist, but still well drained soil that is not strongly acidic or limey. Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 9. Hardy to -4 °F (-20 °C), coral bells should be mulched in very cold climates in winter to reduce the tendency to heave up in the frozen ground.
Propagation: The various cultivars of coral bells can be propagated by dividing the clumps in spring or autumn every 2-3 years. Seed may be planted in spring, but cannot be expected to come true for named cultivars. The non-cultivar species is still easier to propagate by division than by seed.
Coral bell flower buds beginning to emerge.
These are durable, long-lived perennials, and their mottled foliage is very attractive, making for an effective evergreen groundcover in damp, sunny locations, even if they never bloomed. But bloom they do, and over a long period of four to eight weeks, or even more if spent flower stalks are quickly removed. Coral bells is used along the edges of garden paths and flower beds, in the woodland garden, and in the perennial flower garden. It also can be used in containers with other flowering herbs, and in rock gardens. Divide older plants every few years as they have a tendency to lift themselves out of the soil. Coral bells makes a beautiful and long lasting cut flower. Coral bells is attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, but not to deer and bunnies.
There are some 50 or so species of Heuchera in the SW U.S. and Mexico, and apparently most have been used by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes. Most prescriptions call for decoctions (taken internally) or poultices (applied externally) of the roots, but some employ the leaves as well.