Elephant’s ears are a common sight in many gardens but are often overlooked as being untidy, boring groundcover plants that are used in those tough places where nothing else will grow – a sort of afterthought which are hidden rather than admired. The creeping rhizomes of Bergenia x schmidtii, which is often the variety seen in many gardens, doesn’t do the genus any favour. It has no colour in its winter foliage and flowers so early in the year that it is can easily be damaged by frosts.
Bergenia will grow in those dark shady areas of the garden where nothing else will, however they really do need the opposite, maximum light and exposure in order to get good foliage colour. They grow best in open areas on poorer, drier soils, providing large bold leaf contrasting with ornamental grasses or other thinly textured plants.
Most Bergenia’s are evergreen perennials with leathery rounded leaves up to 30cm (12in) across that rise from a stout, iris-like rootstock. Some make tight clumps while others develop a more open habit. Then, as cooler weather sets in, the leaves may develop rich winter colouring – maroon, crimson, bronze and even beetroot red.
If you are wanting the coloured foliage in winter then its best to choose the right variety, Bergenia coridfolia purpurea, Eroica and Overture are all great examples, along with Bergenia ‘Abendglocken’, B. ‘Admiral’, B. ‘Eric Smith’ and B. ‘Bressingham Ruby’ too. However, the flowers can also be impressive, with cultivars emerging with a greener hue during spring. If planted on an Open sunny site, you will be rewarded with a profusion of showy clusters of bell-like flowers during March/April. All shades of white and pink are catered for. However, my favourite would be Bressingham White – the dazzling white flowers really lighting up the spring garden.
Early bulbs are ideal partners. Set around clump-forming Bergenias and slip among the roots of those with a more open habit. ‘Atkinsii’ snowdrops are ideal or try ice-blue Scilla mischtschenkoana, dainty Crocus tommasinianus and wood anemones. I also use them as great edging plants on corners, they provide great structure for the winter garden and a great backdrop for later flowering perennials too.
Although slugs and snails certainly can be an issue, regular tiding up of old decaying leaves will help prevent this. Don’t let this put you off overall, they are an invaluable genus and its about time more people realised the potential these fantastic little plants have.