Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Now, Boys, This Is Alumroot.

"Boys.  Now, boys," my grandfather would say, stopping to gently probe a plant with his walking staff, "this is alumroot.  It is good for the liver.  Yes.  That's right." 

When he said, "boys", he meant all male members of the group including his grown sons who were also Naturopathic physicians.  And my grandmother was a Naturopath.  Young and old, we would all stop for a closer look and a lesson.  One of the "boys" might recollect, "Say, Daddy, remember when we gathered it near Star Mountain?  We packed a picnic lunch, and..."  Much of the discussion was lost on me; I was in a hurry to explore beyond the next bend in the trail before we had to turn around and go back.  But now that I have children of my own, I slow them down for a closer look at herbs of interest.

Alumroot is properly named Heuchera (pronounced "HEW-ker-uh").  It was named by Carolus Linnaeus in honor of Johann Heinrich von Heucher, 18th century professor of medicine and botanist at Wittenberg, Germany.  Heucher was one of the most accomplished and honored naturalists of his day.  Another name for Heuchera is Coralbells.

There are about 50 species of Heuchera.  All are native to North America and found in practically every state and province. 

Though Heuchera has more than one medicinal use, it is more often cultivated as an ornamental perennial for its foliage and flower.  So popular has it become, and new hybrids so frequently introduced, that one wonders, "Alright, already!  How many more do we need?"

Plant height ranges from 12" to 18".  Foliage is herbaceous, meaning that the rounded, scalloped leaves usually die back in winter.  Leaves range in color from green to peach or purplish.  Small, white to pink flowers appear in sprays atop wiry stems from spring through summer.  Heuchera is effective in perennial, rock gardens and container gardens.  Wooded gardens with light shade are just what the doctor ordered.

It thrives in full sun to partial shade in USDA climate zones 3 through 8 in slightly moist, well-drained, humusy soils with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.   Partial shade is best in warmer climates.  It needs slight but consistent moisture in spring, but otherwise is reasonably drought-tolerantHeuchera is deer-resistant, too.
If soil is compacted, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 10" deep, removing all traces of weeds.  If the soil is high in organic matter and friable, it may not require cultivation.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil, if necessary.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants. 

Space the plants 24" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Water the plants in the pots, and drain before de-potting them.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Because it likes slightly moist, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter, plant Heuchera with companions having similar cultural requirements.  Fertilize sparingly and irrigate when necessary, but don't over-water.

Heuchera should be a wonderful addition to your perennial garden.  If you prefer using native plants in your garden, this one may be right for you.  And if you like to collect specimens with some medicinal history, you can proudly stroll through your garden and point out alumroot to your attentive friends and loved-ones.

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