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Bergenias – fan or foe?

Graham Rice,bergenia,scilla. Image © (all rights reserved)
Graham Stuart Thomas, one of the great plantsmen of the twentieth century, was a big fan of bergenias:

“These plants provide the ideal evergreen ground cover with bold outline and are a godsend to those dry, windy gardens where hostas do not thrive… Apart from their value in contrast to sword-like and other foliage, few plants look so well when spreading in firm bunches over the edges of paving…”*

John Raven, one of the finest writers about plants of the twentieth century, hated bergenias:

“Goodness knows why, but the insufferably coarse genus of Bergenia is apparently coming back into favour. If you grow Bergenias for their leaves you can have no appreciation of elegance and if for their flowers you must be colour-blind….”*

What do you think? Got any other juicy quotes about bergenias? Or please provide your own!

* Graham Stuart Thomas in Perennial Garden Plants, 1990 edition, page 94
* John Raven in A Botanist’s Garden, 1971, page 133


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Nigel Colborn

Ha ha! Talk about love-hate. I agree with GST but also, a bit, with John Raven.

Bergenias make a wonderful splodge of leathery blacksmiths' aprons, chucked down over nasty paving, or where absolutely nothing else will grow. And their flowers are exceedingly jolly, particularly once they've come up above the leaves.

And Mr Raven - of course they're coarse! That's the whole point of them. These aren't delicate girly pretties - they're navvies of the plant world, doing a tough job without complaint.

As for their flower colour - John Raven must be blinded by colour snobbery. Lurid pinks are gorgeous, and the tartier the better. A pox on delicate, Home Counties pastels, say I!

One final point: how dare GST mention them and hostas in the same breath? The one soldiering on through thick and thin; the other beautiful for Chelsea, jaded and snail-ravaged from June to frost, hideously liquescent in November and invisible for the rest of the year. Not that I've any strong views.

Catherine Horwood

We know all about your strong views, Nigel! Can I add a Beth Chatto quote? '[Bergenias] give me much pleasure, loyal and valued friends all the year round except for a brief spell at the end of winter when I gladly forgive a little tattiness while they remake a fresh suit of clothes.' You can't say that about hostas!
From BC's nursery I have a particularly lovely variety, B. purpurascens Helen Dillon form (someone else with strong views on plants!), with stunning quite upright mahogany leaves (more delicate than the ones in your photograph) a perfect backdrop with snowdrops and other spring bulbs.

Karen - An Artists Garden

foe - definitely foe - I think they are ugly messy things - except the one in my garden looks quite pretty with its bright pink flowers at this moment in time, then it will revert back to an ugly messy lout.

Catherine Horwood

Sorry - should have put in a footnote for the Beth Chatto quote - Beth Chatto's Garden Notebook (1988), p. 260.

Graham Rice

Thanks everyone... Nigel, I have a feeling I'll be quoting your views on bergenias in some other place before long. And thanks, Catherine, for that great Beth Chatto quote (and reference). Even Karen is not 100% against bergenias.

Me? I love some - 'Eric Smith' and 'Beethoven' are amongst my faves - but Bergenia x schmidtii should be compost.


I'm a fan. It's difficult to hate anything that is so tolerant and easy. The only thing I don't like about them is their tendency to "heave" in cold weather.
I particularly like 'Ballawley' which has really big leaves and looks startlingly tropical all year round. It has bright magenta flowers too. I agree with Nigel - the bigger and the more outrageous, the better.

Graham Rice

Actually, I don't really like 'Ballawley' - the leaves are too big, the flowers swagger with a bit too much overconfidence. But the red winter foliage of 'Eric Smith' is the best of any, while the white flowers of 'Beethoven' do not take on pink tones as they age but stay pure.

James Golden

I love them all for their fabulous texture, shape, and winter color (some), but would be perfectly happy if they never bloomed. You can almost "feel" a bergenia's foliage at a distance.

Judy Barker

I like Bergenias because my Grandmother called them "elephants ears" and wish to tell the same to my grandchildren. They are fun plants to catch a childs imagination.


Do you have 'Beethoven' in PA? I ask b/c the flowers on what I have as that plant here in the USA will often take on pink tones as they age, and I'm wondering if it might be a heat issue, or if I have the wrong plant...?

Robert Webber

Bergenias are fabulous for introducing muscular texture to borders and they are endlessly versatile. We always find ourselves using them somewhere in our designs,have blogged about them and for a little distinction amongst the clan Bergenia stracheyi is hard to beat.
A quote? Try Gertrude Jekyll:
'There is nothing flimsy or temporary looking about the megaseas (as they were then known), but rather a sort of grave and monumental look that specially fits them for association with masonry, or for any place where a solid-looking edging or full stop is wanted.' Right on!!!


Graham Rice

No, I don't have 'Beethoven' in PA. I recently checked the slide I have from a few years back, taken in Northamptonshire - not a hint of pink. You may be right, though, it can get much hotter at flowering time in many parts of the US than it does in England. And thanks for the Jekyll quote, Robert, that's a great one.

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