Tiarella 'Brandywine'--a workhorse of a plant--under hemlocks

When it comes to gardening, I have come to admire the workhorses over the starlets.  You can keep the rare Meconopsis (Himalayan blue poppy), picky Daphne and slug magnet candelabra primroses.  Let other gardeners coddle them.  I want plants that perform.

A plant that produces: Tiarella cordifolia (heartleaf foamflower), native to eastern North America.  It’s a ground covering perennial for shady conditions, slowly forming a colony from rhizomes below my western hemlocks, western red cedars and Douglas fir.  In other words, it’s the kind of plant that doesn’t shirk when faced with competition. 

I started out with one 4” plant of T. cordifolia ‘Brandywine’ purchased from Heronswood Nursery in 1998.  The cultivar boasted a patterned leaf and larger, pinker flowers than the species.  But really, it’s the constitution of ‘Brandywine’ that sends me.  From one plant, now a patch of about 15’ across that has politely tip toed around ferns, Hellebores, Leucothoe and shares space with other mat formers as Corydalis and Dicentra (bleeding heart).  It roots shallowly in the forest duff; unlike the other Tiarella cultivars I have whose parentage is T. wherryi, trifoliata or collina and whose form is clumping.  Think ‘Crow Feather’ or ‘Iron Butterfly’.

Tiarella cordifolia 'Lehigh', with the brightest green foliage of the "River Series"

In all but our harshest winters, heartleaf foamflower is evergreen, and in spring, the bottle brush flowers are showy in a woodland kind of way–never garish, full of charm.  I’d say the only caveat to the species is that deer find the flowers, in particular, palatable.

In 2008 I was thrilled to stumble upon new foamflower introductions at the Garden Writer’s Convention in Portland, Oregon.  Plants Nouveau was showing off lush pots of their “River Series” of Tiarella cordifolia, developed by the breeder of ‘Brandywine’– Sinclair A. Adam of Dunvegan Nursery.  My excitement was not that the species had been further improved, but that this meant its chances of becoming widely available again in the nursery trade was possible.  I would use Tiarella cordifolia hybrids in every landscape design if I could only be assured of a regular source for the plant. 

T. cordifolia 'Octoraro' under Hellebore

I was unable to contain my enthusiasm for the new Tiarellas to the folks at Plants Nouveau and they allowed me to test the river series in my garden, as long as I didn’t propagate them, of course.  September 2008 I planted 5 liner pots of each of the cultivars ‘Delaware’, ‘Lehigh’, ‘Octoraro’, ‘Susquehanna’ and ‘Wissahickon’, provided by Skagit Gardens, who was also testing them in their greenhouses to see which they wanted to offer to the wholesale market in the Northwest.   I reported back to Skagit in the summer with the size of the new plants, the number of runners, the number of flowers, and other comments.  I had not lost one of the liners and every individual plant had bloomed that spring.  Now, I have decent colonies forming, all with slightly different leaf shapes, patterns and foliage heights; lovely, all.

Skagit Gardens Nursery is now offering Tiarella cordifolia ‘Octoraro’ and ‘Delaware’ in liners and one gallon pots wholesale.  Those outside the business can check with them to find a retailer near you.  I’ve noticed that the leaves of ‘Delaware’ have a pattern formed by tiny dots of pigment and are rounded in shape; pale pink flowers appear in late spring.  ‘Octoraro’ has been particularly floriferous for me (also pink, but later than Delaware) and grows tighter to the ground than the other cultivars.  Both plants average about 1’ spread in my garden now, after 2 years in the ground; a pleasing rate of growth from liner size.   Here’s to plants with tenacity!                                            www.skagitgardens.com

Companions for Tiarella cordifolia in my garden:  hellebores; Dicentra (bleeding heart); Beesia deltophylla; Asplenium (Hart’s tongue fern); Carex conica hybrids (sedge); Euonymous ‘Woolong ghost’; Erythronium (fawn lily); Arum italicum; Cyclamen coum; Brunnera; Epimedium; Polystichum tsussimense (Korean rock fern); Sarcococca; Saxafraga x urbium; Cyrtomium (holly fern); Asarum caudatum (wild ginger).              ©Colleen Miko, 2010.

About Colleen Miko

Colleen Miko is a certified professional horticulturist with 20 years experience in landscape design who has designed award winning gardens for the NW Flower & Garden Show as well as HGTV’s “Landscaper’s Challenge”. Colleen is freelance garden writer and speaker.
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  1. Sounds like a great plant that I think I need. Hopefully I will see the series available for sale in the spring here.

  2. Oh, you and all your exotic plants that I rarely if ever see down here in Southern California! I really like the almost-lime color of ‘Lehigh’–really fresh.

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