Throughout history Bergenia cordifolia has been a favourite of numerous plantsmen and women. No other plant offers such quality, glossy, evergreen foliage at ground level. It is one of the most useful of all garden plants and worthy of a place in any garden.
In spring Bergenia cordifolia produce clusters or sprays of large pink bell-shaped flowers that sit above the leaves on strong, upright stems that are often tinged red. The flush of flowers starts around March and lasts until early May.
The leaves of Bergenia cordifolia are perhaps their most important feature. Large, leathery and evergreen, they grow up to 20cm (8in) across. When fully established they cover the ground to form a solid carpet impervious to weeds. In autumn, as the frost arrive the leaves of many varieties turn glorious shades of red.
Tough and adaptable, Bergenias will grow in almost any situation; they are equally at home in shade, dry shade and full sun. They grow in a range of soils from poor, light and chalky through to clay. They cope well with drought and yet thrive in heavy moist soils, while poor soil heightens a tendency the leaves have to redden with age. Bergenias are hardy to -40°C (-40°F), long lived and do not require frequent division.
Bergenias large leaves have a huge capacity to tether and strengthen a border throughout the year. They provide architectural structure and introduce textural contrast to delicate foliage plants. They can be planted in groups as ground cover and in dry or windy gardens offer a good alternative to hostas. They sit effectively at the bottom of hedges and are a great carpeting plant, especially in winter, when the evergreen leaves are suffused with purple. They make a spectacular edging plant, few plants look better pooling out over the edges of paths. The foliage also works as an excellent foil to under-plantings of seasonal bulbs.
Sowing: Sow either in late summer/autumn or late winter/late spring
When planting Bergenia seeds directly outdoors it is best to sow out the seeds on the surface in the early spring; Bergenia seeds require a period of cold for germination so it is important to sow outside before the last frost.
If you plan to grow Bergenia indoors first, before transplanting the seedlings to the garden then the seeds should first be placed in moist soil, placed in a plastic bag, and refrigerated for two weeks before moving to a position in the light. After two weeks, sow the seeds on the surface of in cell packs or flats containing moistened seed starting compost. Press the small seeds into the compost but do not cover as they need light to germinate.
Place in a light position and keep at temperatures of around 21°C (70°F). Water from the base of the tray, keeping the compost moist but not wet at all times.
Germination can be slow and erratic, although most seedlings will appear in 4 to 8 weeks, it is not unusual for seedlings to take up to six months to show, so do not throw away the trays too soon.
Prick out each seedling once it has its first set of true leaves, transplant into 7.5cm (3in) pots or trays to grow on indoors. Gradually acclimatise to outdoor conditions for 10 to 15 days before planting out. They should be transplanted into the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Plant with a spacing of 30 to 45cm (12 to 18in) between plants. The plants will bloom in their second year from sowing.
Bergenias are undemanding, growing happily in shade or sun as long as the soil is not too dry. They dislike extremes of heat or drought, but will tolerate exposure to wet soil, which enhances their winter leaf colour.
Although they prefer humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil, their leaf colour is often better in less fertile soil while spring foliage and flower is more impressive in richer conditions. Bergenia should be lightly fertilised in the spring, and kept well watered.
The term evergreen is a bit of a confusing especially as some Bergenias are more evergreen than others. Those that are less evergreen only keep a few leaves over the winter months while others remain solidly green. As with all evergreen plants, when new leaves appear, the old ones turn brown and die off. To keep them neat, and prevent snails and slugs from finding a hiding place it is a good idea to remove these old leaves. Nip off old foliage so plants look smart before the spring bulbs flower.
Occasional mulching with organic matter is all that is needed to keep plants growing well. They benefit greatly from splitting every 3 to 5 years with extra compost dug into the planting bed.
Cottage/Informal Gardens or Flowers Borders and Beds. Shade and Woodland Gardens, Underplanting, Ground cover under trees. Edging.
Bergenia is a small genus of about seven species. Related to saxifrages they are placed in the same family, Saxifragaceae. These low-growing, clump-forming herbaceous plants come from temperate central and east Asia where they grow in woodlands, alpine meadows and on stony scree up to 4700m.
Bergenia cordifolia is native to Siberia, Mongolia and north-west China where it grows in the shade of rocks and woodland.
The name Bergenia was given to the genus in honour of the German botanist and physician Karl August von Bergen (1704 - 1759). Previously this plant was called ‘Megasea’, this dreadful old name has been superseded by Bergenia - but nonetheless, I do love the nautical idea of a "Mega-Sea".
The species name cordifolia in Latin means with ‘heart-shaped leaves’. It is often referred to as the ‘heart-leaf bergenia’.
The most common species in cultivation are B. cordifolia (heart-leaf bergenia), B. crassifolia (Siberian Tea) and B. stracheyi. (from Afganistand and the Western Himalayas with smaller, elongated leaves.)
Common names do bergenias no favours. The dull greyness suggested by "Elephant's ears" contradicts the rich colouring of one of winter's most adaptable perennials. Only in shape is there a similarity.
"Pigsqueak", derived from the sound of your thumb rubbing across the shiny leaf surface, is hardly more enticing.
A National Collection is held at Greenbank Garden, Glasgow - 0844 493 2201
Miss Gertrude Jekyll, high priestess of the foliage cult, made lavish use of Bergenia with great style in all of her gardens. She used bergenias in large drifts of ground-cover ‘running back here and there among taller plants’. She planted them in long ribbons to soften the hard edge of paving. She gave much thought to flowers in the house and picked the coloured leaves in winter to arrange in bowls with Christmas roses or forced hyacinths.
Of Bergenias, which she knew as Megaseas, she wrote:
‘There is nothing flimsy or temporary looking about the Megaseas but rather a sort of grave and monumental look that specially fits them for association with masonry, or for any place where a solid-looking edging or full-stop is wanted.’
Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd - Defending my Beloved
One man’s meat might be another man’s poison, but when it comes to gardening, there are few things more likely to make a placid gardener’s blood boil than somebody maligning one of their best-loved plants.
Think of Beth Chatto when she read The Well-Tempered Garden and discovered that Christopher Lloyd had no time for bergenias. Beth, of course, grows hosts of bergenias, using them to great effect in creating breathing spaces after more complex planting. So troubled was she by his comments that she took the time to write and tell him.
Beth Chatto’s letter provoked an invitation from Christopher Lloyd to meet him for lunch, which in turn led to a long-lasting friendship and a collection of their inspirational letters to one another in Dear Friend and Gardener.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 50mg Average Seed Count 200 Seeds Seeds per gram 4,000 seeds / gram Family Saxifragaceae Genus Bergenia Species cordifolia Cultivar New Hybrids Common Name Heart-leaf bergenia, Elephant's ears Other Common Names Pigsqueak Hardiness Hardy Perennial Hardy Hardy to -40°C (-40.0°F) Flowers Pink bell shaped flowers Natural Flower Time Spring - April to May Foliage Evergreen Height 45 to 60cm (18 to 24in) Spread 75cm (30in) Position Equally at home in shade, dry shade and full sun. Soil They grow in a range of soils. Time to Sow Late spring/early summer or late summer/autumn. Germination 30 to 180 days