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Geranium and Heuchera: Plants of the Year

Heuchera 'Lime Ricky' photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

The National Garden Bureau’s goal is to make the world more beautiful with plants by inspiring gardeners and giving them useful information. This year they have named 2012 The Year of the Geranium and the Year of the Heuchera. Both of these flower families are large and varied, but none have difficult requirements for growing success.
The geranium the NGB is celebrating this year can more accurately be called pelargonium. When Linnaeus of Sweden first published his plant classification system in 1753 he clumped cranesbills and the pelargoniums in one family he named geranium. It did not take long before the French botanist L’Heritier thought one group was distinctly different and moved them to their own group he called pelargoniums. This caused a controversy that endures to this day, but today I will talk about the plant that Thomas Jefferson first sent from Paris in 1786 to John Bartram in Philadelphia, and that most of us still call geraniums.

As bedding plants geraniums can be grown in the ground, but most of us use them in containers. There are four main types. Zonal geraniums, Pelargonium x hortorum, with its familiar leaf markings, is the flower that is sold everywhere in the spring. No matter what color from white to shades of lavender, salmon, pink and red, there is a geranium that will appeal. Most flower heads will have single or double flowerets, but some will have starry flowerets. There are dwarf ten inch plants, and miniature six inch plants as well as the familiar12 to 18 inch size, something for everyone.

A second type is the regal geranium, Pelargonium domesticum, which is sometimes sold as a Martha Washington geranium. These are bushy plants that need cool temperatures to set buds and bloom in the spring. A smaller variety is called the angel geranium with blossoms that can resemble pansies.
Then there are the scented leaf geraniums, again a Pelargonium domesticum. These do produce small blossoms but their main appeal lies in their leaves which release a rich fragrance when they are brushed or crushed. You can choose chocolate, lemon, rose, peppermint or any one of a dozen other fragrances.
Finally there are the ivy leaved geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, with vining stems and, naturally, ivy shaped foliage. These are especially desirable for hanging baskets and window boxes or adding their graceful charm to any container. The flowers are comprised of smaller looser umbels in shades of pink, white and red.
All geraniums need full sun, and a rich well-drained soil. When grown in a container drainage is vital as is fertilizing every two weeks with a half strength balanced fertilizer.
While geraniums can be used in your container garden, heucheras, or coral bells, can bring a whole range of foliage color to flower beds. They can be used as specimen plants, as groundcovers and even add vigor and color to your container plantings. Some catalogs will list them in the shade section, but they also happy in the sun.
It seems to me that the last few years have brought us an explosion of heuchera varieties. I don’t know many gardeners who grow coral bells for the dainty flowers on their tall slender stalks anymore. Heucheras are all about the large leaves of wonderful foliage in a range of colors from the bright chartreuse green of ‘Lime Rickey’ to the yellow and pink of ‘Ginger Ale’ and rich dark ‘Plum Pudding.’ There are also the ruffled green leaves of Garden Merit Award winner ‘Sashay’ edged with burgundy, the hot pink splashes on ‘Midnight Rose,’ and the silver shimmer on the dark leaves of ‘Frosted Violet.’

Heuchera 'Marmalade' photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

While we don’t think that perennials change much over the growing season, beyond going in and out of bloom, a heuchera like ‘Green Spice’ will surprise us with its green and silver leaves and red veins in summer, but then turn orange and burgundy with silver in the fall.
Having said many gardeners are only interested in heuchera foliage, I do want to point out the brilliant ‘Firefly’ that has tall red flowers and even fragrance.
Whether or not we choose a coral bell with pretty flowers, the foliage itself is useful in flower arrangements and a long stemmed leaf will last a long time in water.
Terra Nova Nursery is a wholesale nursery that has hybridized and introduced many stunning heucheras that you will find in local garden centers and mail order nurseries like Bluestone Perennials. Many of these new varieties are not only very hardy, they form large clumps quickly and can be used in a variety of ways in the garden.
Heucheras thrive in sun and shade. They prefer a soil that is near neutral or only slightly acid, but are quite adaptable. Good drainage is important. After a year like 2011 that brought us such torrential rains we are reminded of how important drainage is in the garden, especially for plants like coral bells. On the other hand, they are drought tolerant – in case we have a very dry year. Mother Nature seems to be getting more and more capricious. We can’t even count on a rainy season or dry season on a predictable schedule.
Geraniums and heucheras are both dependable, varied and beautiful plant families. It is easy to see why the National Garden Bureau is celebrating them this year.

Beetween the Rows   January 7, 2012

3 comments to Geranium and Heuchera: Plants of the Year

  • Thanks for this excellent background and info on the geranium, Pat. I remember the first time I posted a photo of one of my geraniums and was corrected by a reader who called it a pelargonium. I tried to call it by its correct name after that, but old habits die hard.

    Excellent choices by the Garden Bureau. Geraniums/Pelargoniums have long been a staple in container plantings here. And heucheras have become one of my favorites; I don’t think you can have too many of them! ‘Tiramisu’ is another cultivar that changes colors with the seasons.

  • Pat

    Rose – When I talk about geraniums in conversation I feel compelled to use the word pelargonium as well, but I think the bigger problem is calling a cranesbill a geranium. More confusing.

  • What gorgeous heucheras! Love them both!

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