First “discovered” by European breeders and later by English nurserymen decades ago, there are now more than 75 Bergenia cultivars available to the gardening public. When I managed the Countess von Zeppelin Nursery in Germany, we carried 35 species and cultivars. Beth Chatto’s nursery in England currently offers 29. In fact, bergenias are so widely appreciated in Europe that they were named the 2017 Perennial of the Year by the Association of Perennial Plant Nurserymen in Germany.
Aside from the fact that the common names selected for these plants, elephant ears and pigsqueak, are less than flattering, why haven’t these uncomplicated, dependable and adaptable plants become more popular in the United States? The primary reason is the result of an extremely unfortunate misunderstanding regarding the culture of Bergenia. Most of the species selected for breeding are native to Siberia and the mountains of eastern China where they grow in the open, among rocks and scree. Only Bergenia ciliata, popular for its enormous, ornamental deep green foliage, prefers shade most of the day. Most of the Bergenia cultivars we grow today will only develop to their fullest potential in sunny locations, depending on the area of the country. Many American gardeners have probably planted inferior seedlings instead of superior modern cultivars, leading to further disappointment.
Name: Bergenia species and cultivars
Common name: Elephant ears, pigsqueak
Hardiness: Zones 3 to 8
Mature height: 1 to 1.5 feet
Mature spread: 1 to 1.5 feet
Classification: Herbaceous perennial
Landscape use: Borders, beds, rock gardens, groundcover, naturalizing, containers
Ornamental characteristics: White, pink or red flowers in spring; evergreen foliage with red to purple fall/winter color
Due to adaptation to their native climate, bergenias are extremely hardy and robust perennials. All bergenias have clusters of bell-shaped flowers, white or light to deep pink in color, that appear in April or May. Bergenia flowers are often surpassed, however, by their round to elongated lustrous, abundant foliage that, except in the case of B. ciliata, is attractive throughout the year. A worthy Bergenia cultivar is relatively compact, 12 to 18 inches tall, with leathery leaves that come into their own in autumn and winter, turning to shades of red or deep purple.
The ideal location would have evenly moist soil improved with organic matter, but bergenias tolerate a wide range of soils, including dryness and alkaline conditions. There are regional differences when it comes to growing bergenias, however. In the mild and cool Pacific Northwest, they have been used in sidewalk plantings where there is no irrigation. Panayoti Kelaidis of the Denver Botanic Garden says, “They’re good garden plants throughout the Rocky Mountain region great plains north of Zone 8,” while Annette Sherill of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina and Sarah Roberts of Goizueta Gardens in Atlanta told me that bergenias suffer in the warm humidity of the southeast.
When it comes to maintenance, bergenias demand little of a gardener’s time. It basically comes down cutting off spent flower stalks and removing withered leaves in the spring. They are long-lived and seldom need dividing, but if a plant gets straggly after a few years, one can cut it back severely to rejuvenate it. Although the plants are exceptionally hardy, in Zone 5 and northwards it makes good sense to protect the foliage from winter winds.
The one pest that can cause damage is the black vine weevil, which seems to have an affinity for all plants in the Saxifrage family, including Astilbe and Heuchera. Prevent incursion by avoiding plants with the telltale notches in leaves; control of the weevil can be achieved with nematode treatments in the spring and fall. I’m told that slugs can be a problem, but I’ve never seen slug damage on the foliage. Bergenias are rabbit and deer resistant.
Homeowners can propagate plants by simple division but nurseries will want to cut off longer rhizomes from stock plants in late fall, remove the leaves, slice them into 1.5-inch pieces, lay them horizontally in trays and cover with sand. The rooted cutting pieces can be potted up in the spring. Bergenias also lend themselves to tissue culture, for those who want to build up their inventory quickly.
Recommended new cultivars for first-time Bergenia growers:
- ‘Cabernet’: deep, lustrous pink flowers with wine-purple fall/winter foliage
- ‘Dragonfly’: semi-double pink flowers, red autumn foliage
- ‘Eroica’: violet-pink flowers; red fall color; late bloomer
Bergenias are truly versatile plants that make a striking show on their own, especially as groundcovers, or in combination with other perennials such as Astrantia, Geranium and Carex species and cultivars. Use them to border a path, as specimens in rock gardens, on the shores of ponds and as an underplanting around shrubs. The contrast of fine-textured perennials and most grasses makes a spectacular mix, and daffodils and species tulips planted along with bergenias will light up a spring garden.
In Europe, Bergenia leaves are incorporated into flower arrangements any time of the year, and they make wonderful additions to Thanksgiving centerpieces and Advent wreaths.
Finally, these plants are ideally suited for containers, providing three seasons of interest with their distinctive spring flowers and glossy, often vibrant, foliage.
No matter what time of the year you take a walk through your gardens, bergenias will always be there to greet you.