Plants with “multiple seasons of interest” are all the rage in gardening circles, and for me, Bergenias fit the bill. Most Bergenias are evergreen perennials that remain attractive all year. Their rounded, bold leaves set off the feathery foliage of ferns and conifers, the slender leaves of iris, or the small oval leaves of boxwood.
As cooler weather sets in, the leaves develop rich winter coloring, ranging from purple to maroon, crimson, bronze and even beet red. Popular in Europe, these valuable plants have been largely neglected by American gardeners. If you want to add a lush, elegant, easy-care plant to your garden this spring, look for a Bergenia.
Bergenias are native to central Asia, from Afghanistan to China and the Himalayas, and belong to the Saxifrage family – closely related to Heucheras, Astilbes, Tiarellas, Rodgersias and Mukdenias. Most members of the Saxifrage family have a flower cluster held well above their basal whorl of leaves, and many grow in rocky places, hence the scientific name which means “stone breaker”. Bergenias were named in honor of the 18th century botanist Karl August von Bergen. Like other garden plants, Bergenias have inherited colorful common names that illustrate their traits: “elephant ears” for the shape of their leaves, and “pigsqueaks” for the sound that you get when you rub their leaves with your fingers.
There are ten different species of Bergenia with variations in plant height and flower colors. I grow the most popular species – Bergenia cordifolia, with its heart-shaped leaves. The plants are about 18” tall, with evergreen foliage that turns a rich burgundy color in fall and winter. In late April, red stalks produce beautiful clusters of bell-shaped pink flowers and the leaves turn to a rich glossy green. In my garden, Bergenia’s large, leathery leaves complement the finely cut maroon foliage of a ‘Crimson Queen’ Japanese maple, a small-leaved boxwood, purple coral bells and pink peonies.
I originally planted three Bergenias, which have slowly multiplied to a drift of about twenty-five. The plants grow from long, tube-like underground roots called rhizomes, and can be divided every 2-3 years to avoid crowding and ensure the best blooms. Mine enjoy a partly shaded, sloped bed, which provides excellent drainage. Other than trimming any tattered leaves in the early spring, and deadheading spent flower stalks, the plants are totally carefree. In general, Bergenias are very cold-hardy, thriving in zones 3-7 in the Eastern U.S. They prefer a somewhat protected location, however, since winter winds will scorch and tear their large evergreen leaves. I have two clumps growing on either side of a low evergreen shrub, and the windward clump always looks more haggard in the spring than the leeward clump.
Although Bergenias are outstanding foliage plants, you can find variations in bloom color from white to ruby red and purple. Interesting varieties include ‘Bressingham White’ (white blooms), ‘Baby Doll’ (baby-pink), ‘Apple Blossom (pale pink with red calyx) and ‘Eroica’ (reddish pink).
For something completely different, you can grow one of the recently introduced variegated cultivars. ‘Tubby Andrews’ is green streaked with gold and cream, while ‘Solar Flare’, is similar to a hosta, with a green center and irregular cream and yellow margins. Both sport dark pink blooms. When the cold weather hits, the foliage of these plants takes on various tints of pinks and reds, creating a real showstopper in the garden.
No matter which Bergenia you choose, you will be rewarded with many seasons of beauty in your garden.