I have a very soft spot for bergenias but I know not everyone shares my fondness for the genus. I might even admit that I don’t know of another plant that polarizes opinion as much as bergenias do. The hatred expressed by some otherwise mild-mannered plantspeople is, it would seem, saved up to be used against this poor beleaguered genus. Let me try to do something to redress the imbalance.
Saxifragaceae is a family with problems!
Bergenia has been placed in the family Saxifragaceae. According to the RHS Dictionary of Gardening from 1984, Saxifragaceae consisted of about 80 genera, including shrubs such as Hydrangea, Philadelphus, and Ribes. In the words of one research paper I found, ‘Saxifragaceae is one of the least understood families of flowering plants.’ and ‘the family has been nearly impossible to define.’ Using the modern technique of molecular phylogenetic analysis, researchers have produced data that suggests Saxifragaceae should now be defined to consist of just 30 herbaceous genera. And Bergenia is still one of them.
The genus Bergenia
Bergenia was named in 1794 by Conrad Moench, a German botanist, to honour Karl August von Bergen, a German botanist and physician. The plants are herbaceous perennials with large, creeping rhizomes. The leaves are all basal and the inflorescence a cyme. Each flower has five sepals, five petals, 10 stamens, and 2 styles. The ovary is ¼ subsuperior and there are 2 carpels, joined at the base, with many ovules. The fruit is a capsule with numerous small, brown seeds.
Taxonomists have also been at work on the genus. It now consists of 10 species, all native to Asia.
- Bergenia ciliata
- Bergenia crassifolia
- Bergenia emeiensis
- Bergenia hissarica
- Bergenia pacumbis
- Bergenia purpurascens
- Bergenia scopulosa
- Bergenia stracheyi
- Bergenia tianquanensis
- Bergenia urgamica
Just six of these, B. ciliata, crassifolia, emeiensis, pacumbis, purpurascens, and stracheyi, would seem to be in cultivation and commercially available in the UK.
Let’s find out a bit more
Now we know where begenias fit in the scheme of things we can look at them in more detail and, perhaps, find out why some people hate them and how they might be persuaded to give them a try. We’ll start with some well known species.
Bergenia crassifolia has now been combined with B. cordifolia under the one name. It has a native range from Siberia to N. Korea and was first described in 1889, although it has probably been grown since the late 18th century. The very large leaves are bright green and glossy and the big heads of magenta flowers held on stems of about 30cm.
In William Robinson’s English Flower Garden of 1898, F.W. Burbidge writes at length about Giant Saxifrages, as they were known then. There is also a form with leaves that turn purple in winter and it was this that became one of Gertrude Jekyll’s favourites, which she used extensively in her designs. Margery Fish, writing in 1964, thought very highly of this plant, making it almost the first one mentioned in her Ground Cover Plants. She recommended it as a foliage plant, also mentioning the winter colour of the leaves, but includes a description of the flowers, ‘deep magenta-pink, carried proudly on stems that can be 18 inches high.’
Bergenia purpurascens has a native range from Himalaya to China (SW. Sichuan, N. Yunnan) and was first described in 1868. Graham Stuart Thomas gives details of the leaves in his Perennial Garden Plants, ‘They are narrow and held erect; dark green in summer, by the end of November they have turned to a magnificent beetroot colour while the backs are mahogany- red.’ He gave it his star rating as a good garden plant. The flowers are variously described as pink or purple.
Early hybrids were raised in Germany and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century.
Tom Smith, of Daisy Hill Nurseries in Newry, raised and introduced a number of varieties from a cross between what he would have known as B. cordifolia and B. purpurascens. With names such as ‘Brilliant’, Distinction, and ‘Profusion’, they were an improvement on the species available at the time but are rarely seen today.
Ernest Schmidt, of the German nursery Haage and Schmidt of Erfurt, crossed B. crassifolia with B. ciliata, producing the early-flowering hybrid B. x schmidtii. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to find a good word written of this plant except from Graham Stuart Thomas, who describes a particular clone, ‘Ernst Schmidt’, and gives it another star rating. Graham Rice, in his Hardy Perennials, is particularly harsh. ‘And quite why it has not been used as material in the traditional art of parabolic projection in the direction of the compost heap I cannot say.’ David Ward writes on the Beth Chatto Nursery website in March 2020, ‘Elephant’s ears, bergenia, are one of the most indispensable and widely used evergreen plants here in Beth Chatto’s garden but there are few plants that seem to provoke such polarising views amongst our visitors. Unfortunately, the genus does suffer from the fact that many people consider them untidy, rather boring and a perfect home for slugs and snails. Very often seen in large sprawling mats of creeping rhizomes and fitting of this such bad press perfectly is Bergenia x schmidtii, which has no winter foliage colour to speak of and flowers so early in the year that it is often damaged by inevitable frosts.’ And, if you can bear one more, I found this on a nursery website, ‘Low growing, quite untidy, and early flowering this can be a love/hate type of plant. Unlike most commercial Bergenia the summer/autumn foliage is, well, meh.’
Have I happened upon the reason for some people’s dislike? If so, then let’s put them to one side and move on to find some bergenias that we will be pleased to have in our gardens. This is by no means an exhaustive account, there are many cultivars out there to try. These are ones that I grow and enjoy.
Bergenia ciliata & B. pacumbis
Bergenia ciliata has a native range from W Himalaya to SW Nepal, where it grows in woods and on shady rock ledges at 1800-4300m. It was first described in 1831. This plant is often thought to be deciduous as the leaves are sensitive to frost and usually deteriorate over winter in the UK. In the spring beautiful, fresh new ones are produced, which grow and become dark green, round, and 30cm or more across. They are hairy on both surfaces and the edges are fringed with hairs. The flowers are white or pale pink and deepen in colour with age. The flower stalks, filaments, and styles all have a pink flush adding to the delicate colour of the whole inflorescence. However, the flowers are also prone to frost damage, which could be an issue for gardeners in cold areas or in a year such as this, when we’ve had frosty nights following a very warm period. These photographs were taken this year at the beginning of April, when this flower was afforded the protection of a nearby evergreen grass. But, even if you lose the flowers because of bad weather, this plant is worth growing for the leaves alone – there’s nothing quite like them! I have noticed that a few nurseries are listing cultivars called ‘Dumbo’ and ‘Wilton’. Is this a marketing ploy or can we expect leaves as big as elephants’ ears or as soft as expensive carpet?
Bergenia pacumbis used to be called Bergenia ciliata f. ligulata. It has a native range from E. Afghanistan to China (W. Yunnan). It is very similar to B. ciliata but has leathery leaves that are glabrous on both surfaces with hairs restricted to the margins.
I haven’t grown this plant, in fact, I’ve never even seen it and, from what I’ve been able to find out, there is still a deal of confusion surrounding it. More room for investigation! I would love to hear from anyone who has it.
Bergenia stracheyi has a native range from E Afghanistan to SW Tibet growing on exposed, rocky alpine slopes at about 4000m. The description was first published in 1868. This bergenia is smaller than other species, and has oval evergreen leaves with ciliate margins and short heads of flowers, pink in the species and white, fading to pink, in B. s. Alba Group. As you can see in the photographs, the large sepals and the pedicels are very hairy.
Eric Smith and some wonderful hybrids – this is where the fun starts!
Eric Smith, who lived from 1917 until 1986, was a renowned plant breeder. Although best known for breeding hostas and hellebores, his list of introductions covers many other genera, including Bergenia. He worked as a propagator in the herbaceous plant department of Hillier’s of Winchester but wanted to start his own nursery. In the early 1960s he joined Jim Archibald in setting up ‘The Plantsmen’, a nursery in Dorset specializing in more unusual plants. According to Jim Archibald, writing in The Hardy Plant, The Journal of the Hardy Plant Society, in 2000, his Bergenia hybrids resulted from using the dwarf, leathery-leaved B. straycheyi ‘Alba’ as a seed parent. He rated them very highly as garden plants because of their dark, thick-textured foliage, which remains in extremely good condition all winter, and their profuse flowering. Eric had selected about four clones and they grew them for several years, after which he named two, ‘Brahms’ and ‘Beethoven’, after his favourite composers. A few years later Jim named other seedlings ‘Bach’ and ‘Britten’. They are all white-flowered, some with green and some pink calyces. He added that the considerable spread in flowering time alone justifies growing all of them. ‘Bizet’ and Bartok’ are two red-flowered hybrids, which Jim selected and named much later, from a large number of Bergenia ‘Ballawley’ seedlings that he had raised.
Eric moved on to Penelope Hobhouses’s Hadspen House and introduced many new plants, often with the Hadspen name attached.
Beethoven, Bach, Britten, and Brahms
Beethoven was the first to bring music to my garden. It is gorgeous! There is nothing gaudy about this plant – it has class and style in abundance. Each flower has petals of pure white, held in a red calyx with a red pedicel. The stem of the inflorescence is also red, giving the whole plant a strong colour at the same time as a great delicacy. It reaches about 30cm when fully grown. The flowers flush pink as they age, softening the colour contrast. The large, paddle-shaped, evergreen leaves can, I have to admit, look a little worn at the time of flowering but new ones are on the way and the clump looks fresh and green by mid-summer.
It was some considerable time before Bach was heard in my garden – a kind gift from a friend. For me ‘Bach’ has a smaller stature than ‘Beethoven’. The flowers open a little later, pale pink fading to white. The calyces and pedicels are, again, red, and the evergreen leaves are tinged with red and have ciliate margins.
Unfortunately, neither Brahms nor Britten makes a sound! I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them and, to date, haven’t been able to track them down. I would love to have them to complete the set but wonder why they seem unavailable. Do add a comment at the end of the post if you have any information.
Pink and pinker
The other cultivars I grow are all in various shades of pink and I will start with the smallest. In fact, it’s probably the smallest bergenia I’ve ever seen.
Bergenia ‘Angel Kiss’ stands at just 15cm when in flower. It was introduced by Terra Nova Nurseries of Oregon, USA, in their Dragonfly Series. The flowers open white and age to pink and are described as semi-double, which as far as I can see means that some flowers have a few extra petals. The green leaves are upright and darken in the winter. There is also a ‘Pink Dragonfly’ in the series.
Bergenia ‘Schneekönigin’ – ‘Snow Queen’ White to pale pink flowers in long cymes are held well above the green leaves in this hybrid from Germany.
Bergenia ‘Biedermeier’ is the biggest one I grow at the moment. It is elegantly tall at about 50cm, with a branched cyme held high above large, long-stemmed green leaves. The flowers are pink and larger than normal with longer, more pointed petals. It is growing well for me and I look forward to it spreading into a sizeable clump.
Bergenia ‘Baby Doll’ This is a really good plant – apart from the name! It’s what I can only describe as a light plant. It doesn’t have the heavy bulk some bergenias do. The bright green leaves grow in tight rosettes and the pink flower heads rise to about 30cm. Again, the flowers have red calyces and pedicels. It bulks up well and is easy to propagate.
Bergenia ‘Rosi Klose’ This one is as pink as I’m prepared to go. It was named after the wife of plant collector, Heinz Klose of Kassel in Germany. The dark pink flowers are delightfully arranged in an open, branched cyme, each flower having a red calyx and pedicel. I rather think the view of the back of the flower is better than the front.
Bergenia leaves to light up the winter
Many bergenias have leaves that turn various shades of red when the temperature drops in the winter. They then provide a wonderful dash of colour and an injection of light to the winter scene. So far I haven’t been able to achieve this colour change. Perhaps I haven’t got the right varieties or the right conditions but I’ve been able to enjoy them in other gardens I’ve visited. Cultivars I’ve noted as being particularly good are ‘Bressingham Ruby’ seen here at Cambridge Botanic Garden, ‘Wintermärchen’, and ‘Eric Smith’.
Then came a bit of a surprise – Bergenia emeiensis
Well, it was a surprise to me, anyway. A few years ago I bought a bergenia, because it was a bergenia and looked rather unusual. It was Bergenia emeiensis and it grew well. I enjoyed its flowers, realizing they were quite different from most bergenias but, I must admit, I didn’t try very hard to find out much about it. Until now.
In The Garden, Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, of February 1996, Roy Lancaster wrote about the discovery of this plant and its introduction to cultivation. It was first collected in 1935 but not described as a new species until 1988. The name refers to Emei Shan (Mt Omei) in W Sichuan, where it was found growing on cliffs at about 1.600m. In the 1980s and 90s, Mikinori Ogisu, a Japanese botanist and plant explorer, rediscovered two original sites and several others, where the species grows in alkaline soils over rocks, in fairly dry conditions, and usually under an overhang. The sites are open rather than shady and the only available moisture seeps to the plants from higher ground. In 1982, B. emeiensis was taken into Japanese cultivation and in 1991 Roy Lancaster was given one of the resultant plants. He was also taken by Ogisu to see the species in the wild.
In the UK, he found that the foliage was badly affected by frost so decided to grow it in a cool greenhouse, which is how he saw it being grown here. He had passed on a division of his original plant to a nurseryman and the plant, also grown under cover, had produced seed and seedlings.
My plant has flowered well for two years but, this year, was caught by the frost after the flowers were encouraged into early growth by that unseasonably warm spell. However, it is now growing away well with lots of new leaves. John Grimshaw grows it in North Yorkshire but admits that it benefits from a late season. The leaves are leathery and glabrous, reddish at first, turning green and splaying out. The flowers are white with pink calyces and pedicels, held in an open cyme on a tall stem well above the foliage. The nodding, bell-shaped flowers lift as they mature and open, and show more pink colouring. The whole plant is elegant and beautiful.
And then came ‘Pink Ice’
Again, bought on impulse because I’d never heard of it and it looked similar to B. emeiensis so I thought it might be a pink form of the species. The leaves are very similar to that species but the inflorescence not so large and open. I haven’t been able to find out much about it but one nursery tells me that it is a hybrid from a B. ciliata x B. emeiensis cross, bred by Robin White. New leaves are red, ageing green, and splaying flat. The inflorescence is held on a short, red stem and each flower has a red calyx and pedicel, nodding in bud but then lifting outwards as it opens. The petals are unusual, perhaps an inheritance from B. emeiensis. They are large, long and curve outwards, pale pink with darker veins. This year ‘Pink Ice’ flowered early, at the beginning of April, and caught my eye whenever I passed by. I’m looking forward to next year already.
Bergenias – how to grow them
Having decided to give at least some of these gorgeous plants a try, what conditions do they prefer? I had always assumed that bergenias needed moisture and shade. In the absence of water in my dry soil, I thought the least I could do would be to provide shade. However, whilst doing research for this post I have been surprised at how often the words rock and exposure are mentioned. Then I began to reread with a little more understanding. Graham Stuart Thomas says, ‘They grow well in any soil, in sun or shade, but for best winter colouring of the leaves they should be grown in full exposure in not-too-rich soil.’ The RHS Encyclopedia recommends the virtual impossibility of ‘a humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade.’ and goes on, ‘Most dislike extremes of heat and drought, but will tolerate exposure and poor soil, which enhances their winter leaf colour.’
I turned next to Beth Chatto as I know that she always took account of a plant’s native habitat in her choices. Bergenias are something of a trademark in her plantings and in her ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden‘ she says that they are the dominant foliage plant in that very dry garden. A quick flick through the pages shows how she used them in huge drifts together with euphorbia, yuccas, grasses, and sedum, amongst many others. She tells of how her friendship with Christopher Lloyd came about over a disagreement on the subject of bergenias – she loved them, he hated them. When she saw his plants, she understood his dislike. On his soil, the leaves had collapsed into sodden, blackened heaps. ‘They were a sorry sight’ She wondered whether, in rich soils, bergenias should be planted on a raised bank where drainage would be improved, having seen plants, undisturbed for years, hanging down the face of a retaining wall. She imagined them in the wild, on rocky slopes or mountain ledges, with their roots in a soil-filled crevice where they would not become waterlogged. Although she admitted that a little more rainfall might suit them better, her begenias thrived.
I guess all we can do is take in as much information as possible, apply it, as best we can, to our own situation, and see what happens. I will certainly be propagating the ones I have and trying them in different locations.
I’ve loved looking at bergenias more closely
I have enjoyed hugely taking the time to examine bergenias in a little more detail and have really appreciated the contribution they make to the spring garden. Together with the miniature, deep pink Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’ and a red pulsatilla, the bergenias have warmed up the colour palette afforded by blue and white muscari, anemones, scilla, and epheion, pale yellow primroses, and white narcissus. It has been a wonderful patchwork for weeks.
But now they’re coming to an end. When they started flowering, geraniums had just a few new shoots but are now mounds of beautiful, finely divided foliage. Ferns were still in tight brown buds, now they’re unfurling fast. All iris had to show were leaves, now the buds are forming. Summer is on its way but, unlike the bulbs and some other spring-flowering plants, which will disappear below ground, bergenias will carry on furnishing the garden with their evergreen leaves right through the summer, autumn and winter. We must make sure we look after them.
Find some useful information
I have travelled down paths I didn’t even know existed. Paths to gardens, to scientific discovery, to interesting people, and amazing endeavour, and even poetry. I’ve learned so much. Please follow me if you’d care to, or go on your own web wander – you never know what you might find.
I’ve looked at scientific research papers and, although I only understand a tiny fraction of what is written, I’m hoping that the little that does sink in will give me a better understanding. I’ve explored the work of scientists and communicators, Pamela and Douglas Soltis, and watched their videos and Ted Talk on The Tree of Life with great interest.
Molecular Systematics of Saxifragaceae
Darwin review: angiosperm phylogeny and evolutionary radiations
Doug and Pam Soltis – The Tree of Life
I’ve delved into World Flora Online, which is being developed by a consortium of leading botanical institutions worldwide to be an online flora of all known plants – the place to go for up-to-date plant names and information – and into Kew’s Plants of the World Online, which often gives a little more information.
I’ve found out about people associated with plants, such as the talented plant breeder, Eric Smith, who I read about in an article by Jim Archibald. Unfortunately, I’d only heard Jim’s name and didn’t know anything about him. The Scottish Rock Garden Club has The Archibald Archive on its website and, from there, I was able to take a tour of his garden, Bryn Collen, thanks to an excellent article by Tim Ingram, plantsman and nurseryman from Kent. Further on, I found an amazing poem by Tasmanian nurseryman and plant hunter, Marcus Harvey, inspired by Jim’s seed collection.
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