Some plants are instantly loved; others are written off as boring and take time to win our appreciation. Elephant’s Ears or Bergenia tends to fall into the latter camp. Such polarised viewpoints were even found in two of Britain’s greatest gardeners: Beth Chatto (1923-2018) and Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) of Great Dixter. Gaining an appreciation of this plant rather depends on your soil. They fare badly in Great Dixter’s heavy soil, but thrive in the dry soil of Beth Chatto’s famous Gravel Garden. Beth Chatto penned a defence of the plant’s character and so the unlikely Bergenia is responsible for igniting a great gardening friendship.
Elephant’s Ears offers indispensable winter and spring flowers. They do well in sites with poor soil. They thrive in the open, drought-prone areas in Beth Chatto’s gardens. Most gardeners tend to stuff them in dark shady, unloved corners. Bergenia actually appreciates a lighter environment benefiting from some sunshine.
The evergreen leaves provide robust, all-year ground cover with low maintenance. They exhibit good frost resistance. Some varieties also change to a red colour to provide additional seasonal interest. The unfortunate downside is that slugs and snails are a little too partial to them. It is recommended that old leaf debris is cleared to discourage their unwelcome appetites.
From Elephants to Pigs
It is not hard to understand how the leaf shape gave Bergenia its common name of Elephant’s Ears. It has a tough, leathery feel with a shape reminiscent of an elephant’s ear. Zoology inspires another vernacular name: Pigsqueak. This reputedly describes the sound of two leaves being rubbed together.
From Elephants to Rhinoceros
Elephant’s Ears belong in the Saxifrage family or Saxifragaceae. The genus Bergenia has 10 species. It was named after the German botanist and anatomist, Karl August von Bergen (1704-1759). He wrote a Flora of Frankfurt and about another tough-skinned animal, the Rhinoceros. He corresponded with Linnaeus in Latin.
Appreciated by Bees
Another saving grace of the Bergenia is its nectar- and pollen-rich flowers. They are particularly appreciated by early pollinating bees. The RHS recognises 17 varieties of Bergenia with the combination of an Award of Garden Merit and Plants for Pollinators insignia. Maybe it is time gardeners took a closer look at the charms and qualities of Bergenia?
References and Further Reading
- Biologie Seite (2021): Karl August von Bergen
- Great Dixter (2021): Christopher Lloyd
- RHS (2021): RHS Plants for Pollinators
- Ward, Dave (2017): Elephant’s Ears, Bergenia. The Beth Chatto Gardens. Blog. February 2017.
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.
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