All about heathers

Heathers are incredible plants that offer real value for money, as they provide a splash of vibrant colour, more or less the year round and especially in autumn and winter. Currently, there are more than 500 heather varieties to choose from with light to dark green, silver, yellow, grey or purple evergreen leaves.

Heathers long-lasting flowers vary from the purest white, through pinks and reds of every shade to the deepest purple and there are varieties that have frilly blooms as well as fully double, which resemble tiny roses

Heathers bloom for weeks on end from July to November and even when the flowers eventually turn brown at the end of the season, they remain on the plants giving texture to winter borders. Heathers look particularly good planted en masse among stones, in alpine gardens and conifers and rhododendrons make perfect partners as well. They require a well-drained root run and most cannot tolerate a limy soil, so if your soil is on the heavy side or chalky, you’re better off growing them in containers or a raised bed.

Heathers as a group, includes three main genera: Erica, which have needle-like leaves, Calluna that have overlapping scale-like leaves and the Irish heather, Daboecia, which is a tiny group of only two species. Before making your selection, check your soil’s pH. If it is above 7.5 choose from the lime-tolerant species, such as Erica carnea, E. x darleyensis and E. erigena varieties, but if it’s 6.5 or below you can grow any type of heather.

Heathers vary in habit too, which makes them very versatile. The ground-hugging varieties can be used to make patchwork carpets that will stop weeds pushing through. To get a quick ground cover of carpeting heathers, space plants about 30cm apart

Some heathers also make striking upright shrubs, the most notable being Erica arborea. Look out for the outstanding variety Albert’s Gold and plant it with Skimmia japonica Rubella, grey-leaved juniper Grey Owl and the variegated Osmanuthus Goshiki in a large patio pot or border. After planting, mulch the soil between heathers with 5-8cm deep layer of bark chips, as this will show off the new heathers to best advantage

All heathers are hardy and trouble free and can survive in very exposed areas like harsh moorland and hillsides as well as coastal gardens. They are more or less self- supporting, making them perfect for gardeners who don’t have time to tend to their gardens

For the autumn garden you won’t beat Calluna vulgaris Golden Carpet with its magenta flowers and bright foliage that is burnished yellow turning deep orange and red in the winter. Calluna Firefly has fantastic terracotta foliage. Springwood White thrives in sunny locations and well-drained soils and is best clipped after flowering to encourage growth from the centre of the plant. As it has a vigorous trailing habit, it can also be used successfully in hanging baskets and containers as well as ground cover.

One of the most outstanding of winter heathers is the lime-tolerant Erica Springwood White, which produces masses of flowers from December to May above bright green foliage

To create the most electrifying winter border plant the bright orange, fiery shoots of Salix alba Britzensis so that they emerge from between the golden and reddish leafy embers of the summer-flowering ground-hugging Calluna varieties 

To give boring beds of winter-flowering heathers a new life in the “off season” give them a cloak of summer-flowering clematis. Choose one like Clematis Niobe that responds to ruthless pruning in the winter.

For spring interest plant heathers in bold drifts, so that they knit together to form a weed-suppressing tapestry of colour and texture,  beneath acid-loving shrubs like pieris, tree heathers and dwarf rhododendrons. For a contemporary schemes plant pools of lilac-flowered Erica darleyensis Margaret Porter with an edging of spiky black grass Ophiopogon Nigrescens around a sparkling white multi-stemmed birch, such as Betula utilis Snow Queen.

Betula Snow Queen has pure white, peeling bark all year round and mustard tinted catkins that hang from the branches in spring. The silky green foliage turns creamy yellow in the autumn making it great value for money

You’ll find that heathers also offer solutions for many gardening problems too, such as roadside borders (Erica carnea will put up with some salt spray) and difficult to mow slopes. Anyone who’s ever gardened on a slope will appreciate the merits of ground-hugging plants, not only because they prevent soil erosion, but also because they’re generally quick and easy to maintain. An annual clip after the flowers have faded will keep heathers looking good all year round.

Heathers make excellent container plants because they can withstand drought. As they have shallow roots systems, they are best planted in a wide, shallow container so that the root system has as large an area as possible for getting water. Winter-flowering heathers also make useful hanging basket subjects mixed with mini cyclamen and pansies with brightly variegated tails of ivy disguising the rim and adding the finishing touch

Heathers are virtually maintenance free. Simply lightly go over them with shears in spring to trim off faded flowers and tidy any straggly shoots from the previous year’s growth. Avoid cutting into old wood, because new stems will not grow back. Replace old plants with young plants grown from cuttings and give tired plants a boost during the summer with a liquid ericaceous feed such as Miracle Miracid.

Use heathers with small pumpkins to create striking autumn patio displays

Propagation

You can root heathers at any time of year, but in summer there is plenty of growth to plunder, and the young plants will be established before the winter sets in. Ideally take semi-ripe cuttings from non-flowering shoots from late summer to early autumn and root them in free-draining compost. Wait until the compost has dried out before watering the cuttings from below.

Stooling is another way of propagating heathers in late winter and early spring. This is done by ‘earthing-up’ or pushing the soil into a mound around the base of a well-established plant to stimulate roots to form at the base of the covered stems. To encourage lots of new shoots, cut back the parent plant before mounding up the soil. Once each new stem has grown roots they can be cut off from the parent plant and transplanted out.

Alternatively, you can produce new plants without any special equipment by layering. Simply peg strong shoots down onto the ground so they are covered with soil. These will develop roots and can be severed from the parent plant after a year.

It’s a fact!

 

Wild heather or ling, Calluna vulgaris and bell heather, Erica cinerea, are the most common species in the wild, and have given rise to an incredible range of varieties

Smaller numbers of varieties have been developed from Erica tertalix, the cross-leaved heath, which grows in boggy situations, Erica ciliaris, the Dorset heath, native to Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, and Erica vagans, the Cornish heath, found in abundance of the Lizard peninsula.

Heather has been used as a packing material and for animal litter and making brooms. It is often used in rural areas to make screens and hurdles and has even found its way into medicines and dyes

Bees love heather plants too and heather honey is recognized as one of the tastiest they make

Look out for plants that have been given an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society). This award is only given to outstanding garden-worthy plants, which must be easy to grow, resistant to most pests and disease problems and strong growing with reliable flowering.

Wear it well!

The flowering tips of heather are used for dyeing the wool. The freshly cut tips are soaked overnight in soft water. The next day prepare the dye vat – the water and heather needs to be heated slowly to a simmer and hold the temperature for about 45 minutes. Add the wool to the dye liquor, leave to cool, preferably overnight for good colour. Then remove the wool, hand wash and rinse well

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