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Cornucopia - Bergenias

Bergenias
Jennifer Harmer

Bergenias are members of the Saxifragaceae family and are excellent all year round garden plants. The foliage is good and many varieties turn a beautiful red/mahogany in winter. Bergenia is named for Karl August von Bergen (1704-1760) a professor at Frankfurt an der Oder. Originally they were classified as giant Saxifraga called Megaseas. The first to be introduced was B. crassifolia, sent to Linnaeus in 1760 by David de Gorter, physician to the Empress of Russia. Excellent hybrids were being introduced by Mr Tom Smith of the Daisy Hill Nursery, Newry, by the end of the 19th century. He was one of the first to introduce bergenia cultivars; Charles Nelson lists about 30 which appeared in their catalogues. There are 10 species - all Asian. B. cordifolia is another eighteenth century introduction from Siberia.

Who can resist Dan Hinkley’s description of Bergenia 'Pink Dragonfly' in his Heronswood catalogue – “Elegant, petite and beguiling, this new species of bergenia would like to join your garden party. With bergenia’s glossy evergreen foliage, the petite 'Pink Dragonfly'’s narrower leaves turn deep reddish with winter’s arrival. In spring, large rounded clusters of tubular cherry-pink flowers do a sprightly dance above the mounds of foliage. This mountain native requests good drainage and a location offering protection from wintry winds”. (If this tempts you, both Nigel Rowlands and Bob Brown list it.)

We also grow B. stracheyi and B. stracheyi 'Alba'. These are very small and need a warm, sunny spot. I first saw the plants in Jane Sterndale-Bennett’s garden, where they grew beautifully on the well drained chalk soil at White Windows, but I had more trouble with them on my clay until I moved them into the front garden which is on a west facing slope. They are very happy there. They are natives of Afghanistan and North India and are named for Sir Richard Strachey, (1817-1908), who was a Lieutenant-General in the Royal (Bengal) Engineers. He was born at Sutton Court, Somerset and educated at a private school at Totteridge. He entered the East India Company’s military seminary at Addiscombe in 1834, and left it with a commission as second lieutenant in the Bombay engineers on 10 June 1836. After professional instruction at Chatham, Strachey went to India. At the end of campaigning, frequent attacks of fever compelled him in 1847 to go to Nani Tal in the Kumaon Himalayas for his health. There he made the acquaintance of Major E. Madden, under whose guidance he studied botany and geology, making explorations into the Himalaya ranges west of Nepal, for scientific purposes. From this time until he left India for good Richard Strachey was a power in the country, and was, perhaps, the most remarkable man of a family which, for four generations, extending over more than a century, served the Indian government. His wife, Lady Jane, was a well-known authoress and supporter of women’s suffrage; they had 13 children, one of whom was Lytton Strachey.

I grow B. 'Helen Dillon' (now named B. purpurascens 'Irish Crimson') which I rescued at the end of a plant sale. It had one leaf and looked very sorry for itself. However, it has responded very well to a little tender, loving care and is now a large clump with narrow upright leaves which turn the most beautiful dark mahogany in winter. I grow it next to Heuchera 'Amber Waves' and it is a lovely combination.

I also grow B. ciliata, which has huge hairy leaves which are evergreen. This is another native of Afghanistan and, although it is considered rather difficult to grow and a collector’s plant, it grows extremely well in my scree garden, but I will be interested to see how it has survived this winter as it does sometimes get caught by late frosts. The flowers are very pale pink.

B. 'Eric Smith' is another one that colours well in winter although I find it does not do so well for me as B. 'Bressingham Ruby'. Eric Smith (1917-1986) was a well known breeder of hostas and hellebores who was born in Southampton. He worked as a propagator for Hilliers in Winchester, then went to work for Penelope Hobhouse at Hadspen House in Somerset and later joined Jim Archibald to run the Plantsman Nursery where he continued to breed exceptional plants. He gave this plant to Beth Chatto when he left Hadspen House and she regards it as possibly the best of all bergenias for winter effect. The leaves are large, round, and wavy edged with a brilliant plum and crimson colouring. He also bred a number of bergenias which were all named after composers. Not all of these colour in winter. I grow 'Brahms' which has pale pink flowers with glossy green leaves. Joan Cooper, on the Isle of Wight, has a number of composers in her garden!!

I find that B. 'Winterglut' is quite difficult and does not thrive for me, although there are huge patches of it growing at Wisley. I have to say that I absolutely hate B. cordifolia 'Tubby Andrews'. I think its variegated leaves look very sclerotic but it is one of the very few variegated bergenias.

If you want to find out more about the many bergenia cultivars which are available, a booklet published by the HPS covers three members of the Saxifragaceae family - Astilbe, Bergenia and Rodgersia. As far as I am aware no other book covers them in such detail.

First published in the Hampshire Group Newsletter, Spring
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 28.
© Copyright for this article: Jennifer Harmer

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2011. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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