Botanical name: Heuchera micrantha Palace Purple
Family: Saxifragaceae (Saxifrage)
Display period: Spring to frost
Height: 15 inches
Environment: Sheltered sun
A relative of the well-known coral-bells, Heuchera micrantha var. diversifolia Palace Purple belongs in a niche of its own. You won't find the cultivar listed in many books; it's too new for that. But word of it is spreading and so is its availability. For one thing, the Perennial Plant Association has named Palace Purple the 1991 Plant of the Year.
Unlike coral-bells, which is grown for its flowers, this Heuchera appeals for its maple-shaped maroon foliage overlaying a glistening pink underside. The leaves are showy as all get-out, especially when glazed to a metallic sheen by the sun. In late July and August blush-white flowers appear, although they're not the plant's principal attraction.
Palace Purple was first found on the grounds of the queen's palace at Kew Gardens in England, its provenance giving rise to its name. Experts still don't agree on its nomenclature, some saying that instead of H. micrantha, the plant should be classified as H. americana, while others favor H. Villoas. One thing that's known for sure is that the species from which Palace Purple derives is a North American native.
The genus was named for Johann H. von Heucher, a German professor. It encompasses a group of hardy plants, the most esteemed species of which is coral-bells or H. sanguinea. The new breed, however, should give the champion a run for its money.
Palace Purple is easy to grow, adapting to most soils, but not heavy clay. The best specimens are produced, the Perennial Plant Association says, when the planting medium is enriched with generous amounts of organic matter.
Use Palace Purple as a focal point in the front border for greatest effect, and choose as its companions plants with lavender flowers or gray or silver foliage.