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Rainbow of colours: Coral bells' long-lived beauty lies in leaves, blossoms alike

Coral bells (Huechera spp.) are plants that earn their keep even when not in bloom.

Here is a perennial, especially some of the newer hybrids, that is loved as much for its leaves as for its flowers. And in many regions the leaves put on their show year-round, although in northern climes they are apt to be ragged or covered with snow in the coldest weather.

The traditional coral bells, H. sanguinea and native to our Southwest, is grown primarily for its airy sprays of tiny, bell-shaped, red, pink or white flowers. Although these sprays rise a foot and a half off the ground, coral bells is still an ideal plant for the front edge of a flower bed. That's because the bulk of the plant is a ground-hugging whorl of rounded or triangular leaves. The flower stalks are so delicate that the flowers seem to float untethered above the leaves.

HERE COMES THE OTHER AMERICAN

Enter American alumroot (H. americana), a cousin of coral bells that doesn't at all flash around its flowers, which are ho-hum and greenish. No, American alumroot struts only its leaves.

Leaves vary from plant to plant, but typically begin life flushed reddish and with copper-colored veins. From there, the show begins. The leaves of the Dale's Strain variety, for example, mature silvery blue and marbled; this plant makes a nice groundcover. Pewter Veil, another variety, has purple leaves overlaid with a pewter sheen. Leaves of yet another variety, Garnet, are dark red.

Given American alumroot's spectacular leaves and the traditional coral bells' showy flowers, a hybrid of the two species could bring out the best in each. So-called hybrid coral bells, having the genes of other species also thrown in, do offer showy flowers and very showy foliage. And what a visual range they offer on both fronts!

As an example, Bressingham Blaze has fiery red blossoms and white-marbled leaves. Cherry Splash has bright red flowers and leaves splashed white and gold. Frosty's bright red flowers hover above foliage seemingly painted in sparkling snowflakes. Both Chocolate Ruffles and Chatterbox sport plum purple foliage, the former with tawny white flowers and the latter with large pink ones.

One of the most famous hybrid coral bells is the variety Purple Palace. It won Perennial of the Year in 1991 and remains popular, frequently turning up for sale in spring even though you'd hardly look twice at its greenish-yellow flowers. The foliage is, of course, bold purple, making it a nice foil, like other dark-leaved plants, for bright red or orange flowers, which can look jarring against a backdrop of green leaves.

EASY TO GROW AND MULTIPLY

For all they offer, coral bells and its kin are not particularly difficult to grow. Like most other garden plants, they enjoy a soil that drains well yet holds moisture — a condition created in any soil that is kept enriched with organic materials such as compost, leaves and wood chips.

Generally, these plants thrive in either full sun or partial shade, although the leaves of American alumroot and hybrids with marbled or variegated foliage will scorch in full sun in hot weather. Give them partial shade, preferably in the afternoon.

Adequate water and removal of spent blossoms can keep all these plants bedecked with blossoms right up until fall. But some gardeners contend that the newer hybrids of coral bells are worth growing more for their leaves than for their flowers.

Look around and decide for yourself.Then, if you see a plant that you like, you can — with the owner's permission, of course — propagate new ones like it.

Every three years or so, the clumps need dividing, an opportune time to garner a sprig or two or three, with attached roots, for replanting.

The time to divide plants is in spring. If you can't wait till then, start some new plants from leaf cuttings. Stick whole leaves, with a bit of their stems still attached, into a flowerpot filled with moist sand or a mix of half peat and half perlite. Put the pot in bright, but not direct, light with a clear covering until rooting occurs.

For a slew of coral bells plants, sow seeds in spring. They germinate easily, coming up in about three weeks. A few varieties, including Purple Palace, come true from seed, but generally you can expect all sorts of interesting variations on the coral bells theme to emerge when you sow a packet of seeds that has the words "coral bells" on its label.

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