(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 23, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Among the more popular winter-spring blooming perennials are Bergenia, commonly called giant rockfoil or pigsqueak. The genus was named after Carl von Bergen, a 17th century botanist who wrote the Flora Francofurtana, essentially a description of the flora around Bavaria. This genus is a member of the Saxifrage family, Saxifragaceae. Close examination of the flowers will indeed show their similarity to those of the popular saxifrages, albeit relatively huge in comparison. There are only 8 species in the genus, all hailing from eastern Asia.
Bergenia are useful garden plants year-round as most have large, rounded, leathery, evergreen leaves that often turn purplish in winter. In colder area with little snow-cover, the leaves may look tattered by spring but they can be removed to make room for newly emerging leaves. In late winter-early spring, plants produce a thick flower stem 20 to 40 cm tall topped with a dense head of nodding, bell-like flowers that are either white, shades of pink to cherry red. The blooms last for several weeks.
Foliage details summer and winter
In the wild they grow in damp, rocky woodlands and meadows. In the garden, Bergenia do not seem too fussy about their location. In the north they will take full sun to full shade but further south avoid hot afternoon sun. The soil may be alkaline or acidic but should be kept reasonably moist for best plant health. Propagation is primarily from fall or spring division. They are suitable for zones 3 to 8.
There are 4 main evergreen species grown in our gardens. Bergenia cordifolia is probably the most common. It has round, smooth-edged leaves and light to dark pink flowers. Bergenia crassifolia is the largest species with flower stems to 45-60 cm. Its leaves are slightly dentate along their edges and their flowers are magenta-pink. A large specimen of this species will create a bold statement along the front of any perennial border. Bergenia purpurascens has purple-tinted foliage all season and has bright pink flowers. Bergenia stracheyi is noteworthy for its white to light pink, fragrant flowers.
Pictured above are B. crassifolia and B. cordifolia
One other species of note is Bergenia ciliata. This species has the distinction of having deciduous leaves, which is unfortunate, as it also has the most attractive leaves of the genus. They are quite large, dentate with wavy, hairy margins. Its flowers are light pink, face outwards to upwards, are more open in shape and are produced in arching, branching sprays. The effect is quite graceful.
Details of Bergenia ciliata
Perhaps the most popular Bergenia are the hybrids between the above 5 species. These are often sold as B. cordifolia but in fact, few of these hybrids are pure B. cordifolia. There are well over 100 named hybrids varying from white, pinks to reddish-purple. Four of these have won the RHS Award of Garden Merit. These include ‘Ballawley' (crimson flowers on 60 cm stems), 'Bressingham White' (white blooms on 35 cm stems), ‘Morgenrote' (carmine-pink flowers on 50 cm stems) and 'Silberlicht' (white flowers with contrasting red calyx). Other recommended hybrids are 'Baby Doll' (baby-pink), 'Bressingham Ruby' (reddish-pink), ‘Bressingham Salmon' (medium pink), 'Rotblum' (carmine-pink) and 'Apple Blossom' (pale pink with red calyx). There are two last Bergenia worth mentioning. 'Lunar Glow' has interesting cream to chartreuse spring leaves that contrast wonderfully with the magenta blossoms. Their leaves turn green by mid-summer. And finally there is 'Tubby Andrews', a cultivar whose leaves are splashed and streaked cream on green. This one looks great all year-long. It has carmine-pink flowers.
Some hybrids include 'Bressingham White' and 'Bressingham Salmon'
For foliage you could try 'Lunar Glow' or 'Tubby Andrews'
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: DaylilySLP ('Lunar Glow'), Happenstance ('Tubby Andrews'), hczone6 (B. cordifolia leaves), kniphofia ('Bressingham White'), Terry (B. crassifolia) and TuttiFrutti (B. cordifolia flowers).