Heathers and Heaths
A large group of plants that bring colour and interest to gardens throughout the year. Learn how to identify the different genera, discover their uses, attributes and cultural requirements.
In the Winter months most of our gardens need some brightening up. Many of us choose winter pansies to add a splash of colour to our baskets, borders and containers, but the vast group of plants known as the ‘heaths’ and ‘heathers’ can offer a lot of inspiration.
The Ericaceae Family
The terms ‘heather’ and ‘heath’ are used to describe all the plants in the genera:
Plants in each of the three genera (all in the family Ericaceae) have small, needle-like leaves. They usually produce flowers in shades of pink, white, red or purple. The flowers are usually numerous, small, and urn or bell-shaped.
All of the heaths and heathers grow best in a sunny site that has well drained, but moisture retentive acidic soil.
The heaths and heathers are often referred to as ‘indicator plants’ because their presence is often a tell-tale sign of the soil type, in the case of this group of plants being the probability of acidic soil.
Calluna and Erica
The Ericaceae family is dominated by the Calluna and Erica genera commonly known as the heathers and heaths respectively. People often get confused between the two. To properly tell the difference between a Calluna and an Erica you need to indulge in a bit of amateur botany. You need to look at the comparative sizes of the sepals and petals to tell between the two genera.
The whorl of sepals called the calyx upon which the flower petals sit is longer than the whorl of petals called the corolla. The calyx is also usually the same colour as the corolla.
On Erica plants, the corollas are larger and more prominent than the calyx and usually green in colour.
The Erica genus consists of over 700 species. As well as the low growing species and cultivars there are also tree-like Ericas and various sized shrubby examples. Some of the tree-heathers such as E. arborea can grow 5-6 metres tall and 3-4 metres wide.
Ericas are also best grown in an acidic soil but they are perhaps the most popular with gardeners because some will tolerate more alkaline soils. It is the winter and spring flowering cultivars that have this adaptability.
Most of the Calluna cultivars are derived from the vulgaris species, there are over 500 cultivars available, flower colour is usually a shade of red, purple, pink or white. The word Calluna is thought to be derived from the ancient Greek for ‘cleanse’, a reference to how the strong needle like shoots were once used in broom making.
Whilst the Calluna and Erica dominate the Ericaceae family, another genera namely Daboecia is also a welcome addition to any heather garden. The ‘Irish’ or ‘St Daboec’s’ heath has two species, the cultivars of which have urn-shaped, flowers produced throughout summer and early autumn.
Uses of Heathers and Heaths
Heaths and heathers provide excellent groundcover, when established they can create a multi-coloured carpet, from a distance giving a very appealing patchwork effect. Such heath and heather patchwork carpets act as excellent weed suppressants and require little maintenance apart from a light trim with a pair of shears after each plant has flowered. This pruning however does need to be done carefully, the heaths and heathers are similar to the lavenders in that the older, basal, often leafless wood does not respond well to pruning so I would advise not to cut back lower than where you can see active foliage growth.
In the Borders
If your garden is big enough, you could consider an border or area dedicated to Heaths and Heathers, they look particularly stunning when mixed with various dwarf conifers of upright habit that add a vertical interest.
If you don’t have the correct soil type in your garden, and you don’t like the idea of importing large amounts of ericaceous compost into your beds and borders then you can always consider growing heaths and heathers in containers. They are very affective when grouped together in pots, situated maybe on a sunny south-facing patio. They require considerably less care than traditional bedding provided that you use ericaceous compost and water with lime free rainwater.
Heaths and heathers do not live forever; they can become straggly and less floriferous with age. Every 10 years or so you will probably want to replace your stock with younger, more floriferous plants.
There are various methods of propagation. One unusual method is called ‘dropping' A hole is dug, deep enough to bury the whole of the parent plant except for the top 2-3cm of shoot tips. The soil in the hole needs to reasonable and well drained. With the hole prepared, the parent plant is dug up, ideally with a decent, intact rootball and placed into the deeper planting hole and then backfilled, just leaving the shoot tips exposed.
The mostly buried plant is watered well if the following summer is dry, when autumn arrives the soil is carefully removed from around the shoot tips, looking for new roots growing from the tips.
Any tips that have developed roots are cut of roots and all with a sharp knife clean pair of secateurs. The young plants are then potted on and planted out when established.
Careful planning of a heather garden can provide colour for two-thirds of the year, collectively, there are heaths and heathers that flower from early summer right through until late winter. When planting remember to include the golden leaved varieties that provide extra colour when there are no flowers, the golden foliage also often changes colour in autumn and winter to shades of red or orange.
For more information see:
PlantAdvice.co.uk plant profile