Why You Should Be Growing Bergenia

I was first introduced to bergenia when I joined the National Trust for Scotland as a gardener at Greenbank Garden three years ago. They hold a National Collection of the genus, with many rare and unusual species and varieties that are displayed across the garden, often growing comfortably in a quiet, shaded spot. 

At first sight, they appear uninteresting for most of the year, apart from the short few months in spring when they produce seemingly insignificant flowers. But as a versatile, adaptable, and hardy group of plants, I want to try to convince you that there is a bergenia for your garden. From the small, alpine species to the large, broad leaf cultivars that turn a fantastic shade of red in winter, there is a bergenia to suit every garden environment.

As one of the most polarising garden plants, however, I want to start by appeasing the critics and say I understand the initial lack of appeal. The evergreen foliage can be messy and boring at times, and provides the perfect breeding ground for slugs and snails, the rhizome creeps slowly but can quickly take hold and spread vigorously if left unchecked, and the flowers are often short-lived and bitten by late winter frost. Even with all of that going against them though, I believe they can be a valuable addition to any planting display, and I want to share my favourite ones to grow.

Easily Identifiable

Bergenia is a small genus with about 7-10 species, as yet unconfirmed, and many hybrids and cultivars with about 200 plants in total. They are native to the rocky, mountainous, and woodland regions of Central Asia, Eastern Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan, India, and Western China and are easily identified by their large, floppy, paddle-like, evergreen leaves and short inflorescence of pink or white flowers in spring. 

Come Into the Light

Traditionally grown for their adaptability to shade and their tolerance of slug and snail damage, they have often been resigned to an unloved corner of the garden, but if you want to get the most out of your bergenia, bring them into the light. They flower best in spring when they are grown in full sun and this also helps their foliage colour in autumn. Removing dead foliage will also keep the plants looking tidy and reduce slug and snail populations. 

They are very easy to grow and will sit happily in temperatures down to -15C, apart from the few semi-evergreen species such as Bergenia ciliata and Bergenia emeiensis which will die back in winter and produce fresh new growth in spring.

Extensively hybridised during the late Victorian period and cultivated throughout the 20th century, there is now a plethora of varieties to choose from to suit the needs of every gardener. I find it easier to divide the plants into two groups: spring flowering and autumn-winter leaf colour. 

Having worked closely with the genus for several years now, I’ve noticed that those that provide the strongest leaf colour in winter often do not have the most attractive flowers, and those that flower well in spring tend not to colour up in winter. This makes it much easier to decide which cultivar to buy for the garden.

Autumn-Winter Leaf Colour

The classic Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ with its compact habit and bright, glossy, leathery green leaves which gradually turn a deep ruby-red in autumn is a must in any winter garden. Bred by the Bressingham Garden in 1984, the series has produced some of the most popular and reliable cultivars still used extensively today, including Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’, ‘Bressingham Bountiful’, and ‘Bressingham Salmon’. I find they look best when interplanted with mid-winter snowdrops, the drooping white flowers emphasising the rich depth of red in the foliage. 

Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’

Bergenia purpurascens ‘Irish Crimson’ has erect, upright, red-bronze foliage which looks stunning sitting in direct, low lying winter sunlight. Use it to underplant Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) with its intense white bark to create a powerful aesthetic contrast during the colder months. This also works well with Bergenia ‘Beethoven’, which will produce the most intense purple foliage in winter if it is planted in a sunny but sheltered spot. 

Bergenia purpurascens ‘Irish Crimson’.

If you are looking for a compact variety, look no further than Bergenia ‘Wintermarchen’. Perfect for a border edge or as part of a container display, this slow growing variety will wow with its upright, scarlet foliage in autumn-winter and reward you with short, thick, red stems carrying deep rose-pink flowers in spring. 

My other recommendation is a cultivar I have only found growing at Greenbank: Bergenia ‘Ingwerson’s Minima’. Truly compact in habit, it grew in a raised bed in free draining soil and produced neat green foliage, tinted bronze in winter. It would look equally delightful in a small container display or in a rockery. I cannot recall its flowers and I cannot find it online but I would love to know if it is growing elsewhere in the country and not completely threatened in cultivation.

One of my most recent favourites is Bergenia ‘Kerstin’. It has a compact habit and long, strappy, bright green leaves with clusters of clear pink, ruffled flowers that slowly open to become more stellate. A very pretty and charming spring flowering cultivar which I am looking forward to seeing flower in the coming season. 

Bergenia ‘Kerstin’
Bergenia emeiensis


If it is the flowers you are interested in, then look no further than Bergenia emeiensis, the most elegant and admired bergenia species. It was discovered on Mount Emei in Sichuan in 1935 but not introduced into cultivation until the 1980s and 90s. It has bright green, leathery leaves that turn bronze in winter, and produces tall, pink stems carrying white, slightly pink, flowers within red-pink calyces that droop elegantly over the foliage.

In its native mountainous habitat, it grows in rocky alkaline soils, in dry and open conditions, so when grown outdoors here in Scotland do not expect much from this tender semi-evergreen. I would suggest growing it in a pot in a cool glasshouse where its flowers will not be nipped by the unpredictable spring weather, or, alternatively, in a sheltered and warm outdoor spot where it can receive plenty of sun. 

For me, I have always been drawn to the white flowered varieties and the other truly worthy contenders for best flowering are Bergenia ‘Bressingham White’, Bergenia ‘Mrs Crawford’ and Bergenia ‘Siberlicht’. 

If you are partial to pink though, then I recommend two cultivars: Bergenia ‘Baby Doll’, for its tight, neat habit and clusters of drooping, light pink flowers, and the endangered Bergenia ‘Biedermeier’ which has large, dark green leaves and flower stems reaching 50cm tall, bearing tightly packed clusters of open, stellate, baby pink flowers with a dark pink centre. 

Bergenia ‘Baby Doll’

If I have not yet convinced you to consider bergenia for your garden, I hope I have given you some idea of the broad range of varieties now available on the market and how versatile they are as garden plants. Like Beth Chatto, I will continue to champion the underdog and advocate for this wonderful genus that I hope to see growing again in popularity in the years ahead. 

I would love to know your thoughts on bergenia and which varieties you have growing in your garden.

Scott Galloway is a Glasgow based horticulturist and plantsman, specialising in kitchen garden production and herbs. He is particularly interested in the cross-cultural relationships people have with plants and how this defines their uses. 

Working with the National Trust for Scotland, he created a Scottish naturalised herb garden at Greenbank Garden, and is currently writing about plants for the RHS in his role as Plant Profile Writer. He is also building a National Collection of Bergenia in conjunction with Plant Heritage and hopes to be an authoritative voice on the genus.

You can keep up with Scott on his Instagram page and follow his new page dedicated to bergenias right here.

One comment

  1. I was interested to read your article on bergenias in the Scotland Grows newsletter. I have a couple in my garden which behave quite differently. This may be due to where they are planted but what i wanted to ask is if you know why one of them flowers in autumn. It is a large leaved variety which produces tall flower spikes which have clusters of pink flowers at the top. It is evergreen.

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