These low-growing, clump forming, usually evergreen plants are popular both for their foliage and for their attractive sprays of spring flowers. In winter, many develop attractive foliage tints. Although the spring flowers are welcome, especially after winter (and come in a range of colours from white, through pink to reds and purples), the cold-season foliage of bergenias is a longer lasting and more dependable attraction – being more frost resistant than their flowers – and comes in various dark and bright red, ruby, bronze, mahogany and purplish shades.
Useful ground cover, with some growing in dry shade, with named varieties having improved flower or foliage. Superb for providing contrast to strappy or delicate leaves (including grasses), or repeated along the front of a border – they are also useful in the gravel garden (Beth Chatto uses them in broad swathes) where they can be especially attractive.
Most are easy to grow and will even succeed in demanding areas of dry shade. Those selections grown for winter foliage effect colour up best when grown hard, in poorer soils. Many bergenias do however, make fine flowering plants with lush elegant foliage, grown in richer soils. Leaves can be big (hence the common name of ‘Elephant’s Ears’) or much more neat and compact and they can be smooth, thick, puckered or wrinkled, narrow or broad.
Bergenia Silberlicht (Silverlight) is an especially popular white-flowered cultivar, the March blooms becoming pink with age. B. Wintermarchen has deep green leaves with dark red undersides, the whole leaf becoming reliably reddish in winter. B. Overture is a compact selection with purplish green foliage that becomes more intensely purplish-red in winter. The flowers are claret-red in colour, bell-shaped and nodding, carried on red-flushed stems. B. purpurescens has fine deep green leaves (10-15cm long) and in autumn turn rich red, the reverses almost mahogany.
A selection called Bressingham Ruby has neat compact leaves that turn rich dark ruby in winter. Strong red-pink flowers will follow in spring. Last year, I planted a variety named Rosi Klose in the Roehampton garden, a good, reliable cultivar grown especially for its rose-pink flowers on erect flower spikes. The leaves are large and makes good ground cover, even in dry shade (which is as well).
Other varieties have no discernible winter colour – B. Morgenrote, with repeat flowering habit, B. Schneekissen and B. Schneekonigen, as examples, though it is a shame to miss out on the extended season winter colouring can give.
The photograph is possibly B. purpurescens, maybe var. delavayi for the beetroot red. More likely I’m confused by the scale of the image (see the crocus) and it is B. Wintermarchen, a variety I always seem to gravitate to in a garden. In this case grown in the rockery garden by the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew, amongst the bare rock and gravel mulch.
A group of very useful and often overlooked plants.