Heaths & Heathers

So many species and hybrids make up this varied group.  Bloom times also vary all year ’round.

BACKGROUND

The word “Heather” is both singular and plural.  It is an umbrella term covering all plants referred to as Heath or Heather.  Heath is specifically the Erica genus, with the species that bloom in both winter and summer.  Heather (Calluna vulgaris) bloom in late summer through fall and has overlapping shell or scale-like foliage.

CULTURE

SOIL – Well-drained, acidic soil is required.  The exception is Erica carnea and Erica x darlyensis, which will tolerate alkalinity.  If drainage is a problem, amend soil and plant on a hillside or berm.

PLANTING – Be sure to “massage” the root system until they become established.  They have very fine root systems.  Once established, they are drought tolerant.  The most common reason for plant loss in the garden is lack of water.  In Ohio, spring planting is best.

SUN – Heather prefer full sun.  Their foliage color is more intense if exposed to the elements.  Half day sun is acceptable.  The winter bloomers are the best choice for a semi-shady area.

FERTILIZER – Fertilizer may not be necessary.  If the plants are not thriving, use a low rate of fertilizer for acid-loving evergreen plants such as Holly-tone.

PESTS – Heather is generally pest free. 

PRUNING – All Heather benefit from pruning.  Pruning during the first 4 to 5 years will develop a multiple branching at the base.  Cut back only to green wood.  Prune Calluna below old flowers in March.  The plants will bloom on “new wood”.  Winter bloomers need a light shearing after bloom but before bud set in June.  Summer blooming Ericas benefit from a light shearing in early spring.

SPECIES & HYBRIDS

Andromeda
Scotch or Ling Heather
A low-growing plant of the northern hemisphere found in Asia North America and Europe.  Pink flowers bloom from April to July.  Needs moist soils, as the name implies.

 

Calluna vulgaris
Scotch or Ling Heather
These plants are the most varied and interesting of all Heather.   Leaves are small and scale-like.  Flowers are single or double.  Their forms vary from small tufts to shrubs over two feet tall.  Most are small bushes to 36 inches.  Foliage color can be as beautiful as the flowers with golds, oranges, gray and many shades of green.  These colors change with cold weather to red, orange, bronze and dark green taking on plum-purple hints.  Some of the varieties have beautiful colored new growth with shades of pink, yellow, orange or cream.  These Heather do best in well-drained, acidic soil.  They need sun for at least half the day for their best color performance.  Callunas must be pruned or they will become leggy.  Trim to below the old flowers in March.

 

Erica carnea
Winter Heath
Needle-like foliage.  Native to mountains of central and southern Europe.  Flowers during period from October to April.  Low and fast growing, well suited to be a ground cover.  Forms a weed-smothering mat.  Light shearing when young will form dense growth.  This will help prevent the plant from forming bare wood in the center.  Slightly acid to alkaline soils is best.  Very hardy.  Trim right after bloom is finished.

 

Erica cinerea
Bell Heather
Leaves are short needles in bunches.  Stiff branches, upright to 24 inches.  Blooms early summer from May to September.  Flower colors are some of the brightest and most vivid of all Heather.  Prune below old flowers in early spring.

 

Erica x darlyensis
Winter Flowering Hybrid Heath
Winter flowering and bright colored flowers blooming through the winter months to May.  Flowers open pale and then brighten as the season progresses.  Leaves have pink or cream tips in spring.  This plant is bushier than Erica carnea and grows to 18-36 inches tall.  Light shearing when plant is young is a good idea.  Prune to shape soon after blooming.  Slightly acidic to alkaling soils is best.

 

COMPANION PLANTS:

The following shrubs make good companions in the Heather garden:

Laceleaf Maple, Acer palmatum dissectum, 
Barberry, Berberis
Wintergreen, Gaultheria
Scotch Broom, Cytisus
Leucothoe
Rhododendron
Lawson’s Cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana
Sawara Cypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera
Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca ‘Conica’
Rheingold Arborvitae, Thuja occ. ‘Rheingold’
Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata
Mugo Pine, Pinus mugo

REFERENCES

The North American Heather Society
www.northamericanheathersociety.org

The Heather Society
www.heathersociety.org.uk

Small, David and Anne The Heather Society’s Handy Guide to Heathers, 3rd ed.   Denbeigh, England; The Heather Society, 2001