Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Alumroot (Heuchera species)

Heuchera micrantha

Alumroot or Coral bells, common names for plants of the genus Heuchera, now come in a huge array of cultivars that offer a dazzling variety of flower and leaf colors, sizes, and textures. Some, like ‘Chocolate Ruffles’ and ‘Ginger Peach,’ sound almost good enough to eat. So why would anyone want to grow the plain old native ones? 

The Pacific Northwest supports many native Heuchera that are not extraordinarily flashy, artificially-bred prodigies. Instead, they are charming, understated perennials that provide for native pollinators and contribute to the food web that is the backbone of nature’s ecosystems. Breeders’ breakthroughs do nothing for your local ecosystem, so if a true native Heuchera naturally occurs in your area and you find it for sale locally, choose it over those that were created intentionally by humans strictly for looks. 

The genus Heuchera (pronounced HOO-ker-a or HUE-ker-a), with 37 North American species to its name, was named by Carl Linnaeus in honor of a friend, the 18th-century Austrian-born medical botanist and professor of medicine Johann Heinrich von Heucher. A member of the saxifrage family (Saxifragaceae), some of its native cousins include Tolmiea (piggy-back plant) and Tiarella (foamflower). Perhaps the ease of hybridization in the nursery stems from a propensity to hybridize in the (impaired) wild: Heuchera species usually stay true in the wild since they are naturally isolated from other Heuchera species, but climatic fluctuations have caused range extensions and contact among species, resulting in hybridization and persistent hybrid populations.

Heuchera species west of the Cascades

Small-flowered or crevice alumroot (Heuchera micrantha), pictured above and right, naturally occurs in coniferous or mixed forests near shaded streams and in cool, mossy rock crevices, at low to high elevations in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Its slightly wavy basal leaves — sometimes evergreen, depending on winter temperatures — grow from branched rosettes, are shallowly lobed, mature to about three inches wide, and may beH. micrantha smooth, glandular, or hairy. One to three-foot tall open panicles of tiny white flowers bloom prolifically on thin, stiff stems during late spring and early summer. Heuchera micrantha Var. micrantha has rounded leaf lobes; Var. diversifolia (syn. Var. Pacifica) has deeply lobed oval leaves and petioles with long hairs.

Grow them in humusy soil in partial to nearly full shade or in shady rock gardens or rock walls where roots can stay cool. The flowering stems may get a bit floppy, so place them away from well-used pathways where they might get trampled. I have mine growing amongst rocks on a slight slope where they get about a couple of hours of morning sun. They increase very slowly via rhizome or seed. 

Smooth alumroot (Heuchera glabra) appears somewhat similar to H. micrantha. Its range includes British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, where it grows on moist rocky cliffs, in mossy meadows, and along stream and river banks, at low to mid-elevationsRound basal leaves are hairless, with five sharp-toothed, deep lobes and long, hairless petioles. Tiny, numerous white flowers bloom in sprays atop wiry stems. Similar cultural needs as above.

Green-flowered, or meadow alumroot (Heuchera chlorantha) naturally occurs in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, with a wider range in Oregon.Heuchera chlorantha and friend It’s found on moist prairies or meadows, grassy bluffs near the coast, forest margins, and rocky stream banks in sun to partial sun. Arising from a branched crown with short, thick
rhizomes, its basal leaves are nearly round and shallowly lobed. Tightly spaced clusters of green or white flowers top the fuzzy stem, which can grow 1 to 3 feet tall (pictured, right). It blooms from late spring into summer. Grow this gem in more sun that the previous two.

Wildlife value
The flowers of native Heuchera attract native bees and hummingbirds. The plants’ foliage feeds insects (which in turn feed other wildlife), provides cover for small creatures, and protects the soil. H. micrantha is a host plant for Greya politella moth larvae, which feed on its stems. 

Try them at home
Heuchera species like moist soil that’s rich in organic matter and drains well. As with most plants, deep and infrequent irrigation (especially the first few years) will help obtain the deepest roots possible, which help sustain them during periods of drought.

H. chlorantha leaf

H. chlorantha leaf, round and with hairy petioles.


© 2019  Eileen M. Stark

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