We moved from Brisbane to Sydney when I was a child. My mother was grief stricken about leaving her Brisbane garden, but began to recover when she realised she could now grow temperate plants that she’d only just read about in books.
We were living in a rented semi in Belmont Road, Cremorne just a block from the Cremorne Nursery. I vividly recall her standing looking at the small, damp, shaded front garden and saying: “I know what will do well here: bergenia!”.
She was so excited that we headed straight up to the nursery to buy some plants. That trip with our Chow Chow on her lead and my baby brother in the pram was an often-repeated journey while we lived in that house.
I remember looking at the resulting clumps of green succulent leaves and thinking what was all the fuss about. Of course, in winter when they produced heads of mauve flowers, I saw there was more to them but I still didn’t get bergenia.
Now, years on, I have a clump of bergenia in bloom in my own garden and seeing it gives me a little thrill. Not only do I remember that first Sydney garden and Mum’s excitement, I also now agree that it was a great planting choice.
Unkind people call bergenia ‘elephant’s ears’ and even ‘pigsqueak’, but I would never use those names for these dainty, low-growing perennials. Elephant’s ears is due to the shape of the leathery leaves. Supposedly the squeaky noise made when the leaves are wet and were rubbed has led to pigsqueak. I’ve tried but I can’t get a squeak out of my leaves.
It is also called heartleaf or heartleaf saxifrage, but I’ll stick to bergenia, which celebrates an 18th century German botanist Karl August von Bergen.
I described the flower colour earlier as mauve, but I must admit that I first tried lavender, then lilac. Even mauve doesn’t really capture the delicate light pinky colour, which is off set by the red highlights from the stem and underside of the leaves.
In the past 40 so years bergenia has had work. The UK nursery Blooms of Bressingham has developed two varieties with big, bold flowers and these are sold in Australia. There’s a pure white called ‘Bressingham White’ and a ruby red, which you probably guessed is ‘Bressingham Ruby’. Both have stout stems and large leaves. ‘Bressingham Ruby’ has dark leaves.
These and other named varieties have helped put bergenia back on to some plant lists. Bergenia also has a very exotic pedigree, as the plants are native to Asia – from Afghanistan to Mongolia.
But where it comes up trumps is in its adaptability: sun or shade, and any soil. Be warned though – although it does flower better in sun than shade, the leaves can be burnt and damaged during summer so shade is safer. Bergenia does begin flowering in winter in our garden and continues well into spring. The leaves also colour in cold climates.
If you live in a cool or temperate climate and have a shady, moist spot in the garden try bergenia – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.