July 12, 2020

Glorious Blooms Highlight Heath, Heather

Erica cinerea - Heath

Erica cinerea – Heath | Credit: Wikimedia Commons – Kurt Stueber (CC BY-SA 3.0)

• By Janine Pineo •

There’s a whorl of difference between heath and heather.

I’d wondered what distinguished the two, but not until I planted two heathers and a heath did I bother to track down an answer. It hinges on the calyx, which is the outer whorl of protective leaves, or sepals, of a flower.

Calluna vulgaris - Heather

Calluna vulgaris – Heather | Credit: Wikimedia Commons – User: Bdk (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In true heaths, the flower petals cover the calyx; for heathers, the calyx conceals the petals.

Not that that makes it much clearer to me, but it does explain why the blossoms looked a bit different once the three newcomers burst into bloom. And how they bloomed and bloomed, for these plants have some of the longest flowering periods of any perennials I’ve planted.

I discovered a glorious stash of heaths and heathers in May at Surry Gardens. The collection beckoned me to take one look, if only to figure out why this little rectangle of color was grouped just so, with such a vast array of foliage shades, shapes and sizes. The varieties seemed endless, with good reason.

Both heath and heather are from the family Ericaceae. Heath is the genus Erica, which boasts about 500 species, most of which can be found in South Africa with a few scattered through the Mediterranean and northern Europe. Heather is the species Calluna, which has scores of varieties (the Surry Gardens catalog lists 43).

The heath that caught my eye sported several magenta blooms atop dark green foliage. E. cinerea “Rosabella” is a wispy sort of plant that doesn’t look like it could possibly survive a Maine winter, but it is hardy to Zone 4. Like most heaths, this evergreen shrub is a low-growing bush, reaching only 12 inches high with a spread of about 2 feet.

E. cinerea is common in Great Britain and western Europe, where it is known as Scotch heath or bell heather. It is a heavy nectar producer — not surprising since it blossoms for about three months. (What a delicious thought to ponder: heath honey.)

For heaths to grow happily, there are a few requirements. The plants need lots of sun, and soil that is acidic, peaty and moist, but well-drained. It sounds like a tall order, but I found that the upper end of my perennial garden, which is on higher ground and receives the most sunshine, was the perfect place this summer. Rosabella thrived there, blossoming straight through September.

In addition to all that, I mulched just like the catalog recommended — keeping it away from the crown — because new plants should never be allowed to dry out, although established plants are drought-tolerant. Winter calls for a blanket of fir boughs to provide wind protection, and in spring, a single dose of acid fertilizer is due right about the time I’ll be pruning back the stems that blossomed, which should stimulate another round of heavy blossoming.

The good news is that all of the growing conditions for heath hold true for heathers.

Both of the heathers I planted are hardy to Zone 4, but the similarities end there. Calluna vulgaris “Kerstin” was the showiest of the two and only because of its foliage: The stems glow red and yellow, looking not unlike flame. The color faded when the pale mauve flowers came in late summer, but I have high hopes the cycle will begin anew in spring. Kerstin grows about 12 inches high, with a spread of 18 inches. In mass plantings, it would be awesome.

My second Calluna vulgaris cultivar is “Silver Knight,” a silvery gray heather with a marked upright habit. I chuckle nearly every time I look at this plant, whose sprawling long limbs look more like a gangly spider than a plant. That effect disappears once the lilac flowers begin their breathtaking display in late summer.

Heathers are widespread in Asia, North America and Greenland. In western Europe, they cover wastelands, sometimes growing 3 feet tall in sheltered spots.

Perhaps because of its bountiful presence, heather has some surprising economic uses. Depending on the stem size, heathers are used to make brooms, brushes and baskets. With the peat that clings to its roots, heather also can be burned for fuel.

Decades ago, Scottish Highlanders built huts of heath and heather stems cemented with a mix of peat and straw. Even today, temporary buildings are constructed like this and topped with a roof of heather.

I doubt I’ll sacrifice my plants to architecture anytime soon. I’ll just dream of roaming the yard, picking bouquets from the heather on the side of the hill.

The plants just have to make it through the winter.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 1997.