Heather is a small evergreen shrub in the Ericaceae family, making it a relative of Andromeda (Pieris japonica), Rhododendron, and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Its flowers, which bloom from mid-summer to early fall, are usually mauve, purple, or white. But its tiny (1/8 inch long), evergreen, scale-like leaves are valued just as much as its blooms. Height varies by cultivar. Shorter types are best-suited to be ground covers or planted in rock gardens; taller types can be planted in rows to form borders.
Heather has specific growing requirements that differ from some of the other plants you may be growing, so let's learn what it takes to make heather a top performer in your landscape.
|Common Names||Heather, common heather, Scotch heather, ling|
|Botanical Name||Calluna vulgaris|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf, evergreen shrub|
|Mature Size||From a few inches to 3 feet|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to partial shade|
|Hardiness Zones||4 to 6|
A clue to its proper care lies in its very name, which comes from the kind of habitat known as a "heath" (a habitat immortalized in Scottish literature). This habitat has soil that's acidic and moist, but very well-drained. Heaths are relatively low in fertility; plants that grow in them are built to get by with fewer nutrients than the average plant. So put your energy into watering and pruning heather rather than into fertilizing it.
Heather blooms best in full sun in zones 4 and 5. In zone 6, it profits from some afternoon shade.
Providing heather with very well-drained soil is critical and constitutes its primary soil requirement.
Once established, heather has average water needs in zone 4 but will require more irrigation the further south you live in its range. Water the plants faithfully when young.
Temperature and Humidity
Heather likes a climate that is moist and cool. It cannot stand the high temperatures and humidity of regions such as the South in the U.S.
As long as you locate heather in a spot with soil containing some humus, you do not need to furnish it with additional nutrients. However, heather does need an acidic soil. If you lack such a soil, fertilize it with a fertilizer used for acid-loving plants such as rhododendrons.
Types of Heather
Cultivars vary in height (from just a few inches to 3 feet). Taller types form an oval mound; shorter types form a mat. Which cultivar you choose depends on how you want the plant to function in your yard. Short types are suitable for ground covers, tall types for hedges; in-between types offer flexibility:
- Calluna vulgaris 'Dark Beauty': 8 inches; dark-cerise blooms that are semi-double
- Calluna vulgaris 'Spring Torch': 14 inches; mauve flowers
- Calluna vulgaris 'Firefly': 20 inches; flower color begins as chartreuse, changes to orange, and finishes as brick-red.
Prune heather in early spring. Mature heather tends to become leggy, so pruning will keep it more compact and, thereby, more attractive.
You can propagate heather by taking cuttings, following these simple steps:
- Fill a pot with soilless mix.
- Sterilize pruners with alcohol.
- Choose a green, non-woody stem. Take a cutting 6 inches long and just below a node (cutting should contain two leaves and a node).
- Dip tip of cutting in rooting hormone.
- Make a hole in the soilless mix with a pencil. Place cutting in the hole, gently firming the soil around it.
- Water. Put pot in indirect sunlight.
- Set up a "tent" above the pot with a plastic bag to retain water.
How to Grow Heather From Seed
In the wild, heather seed germinates best after a wildfire. Take advantage of this fact to mimic such conditions and increase the chances for germination:
- Spread seed over a fire-resistant tray and put the tray in an oven at 250 degrees F.
- Let them heat up for 30 seconds.
- Fill a seed tray with a soilless mix.
- Sow seed on top of the mix.
- Sprinkle the seed lightly with additional soilless mix to cover them.
- Using a spray bottle, dampen the soil.
- Put the tray in indirect sunlight.
Heather is a very hardy plant. No precautions need to be taken to overwinter it unless you live north of zone 4.
Common Problems for Heather
Heather is not susceptible to many problems, and the few to which it is susceptible are easily avoided:
Powdery mildew does not kill plants, but this fungal disease does mar their appearance. It takes the form of a dusty-looking covering on a plant's foliage. For any plant valued as a foliage plant, powdery mildew can be considered a problem of some significance, simply because it is spoiling one of the best features of the plant. Heather is such a plant. Not only are its leaves evergreen, but they also develop attractive tones in fall and winter ( bronze or purple tones). Prevention is the best control method; for example:
- Avoid overhead watering.
- Prune faithfully every spring to keep plants compact, thereby improving airflow.
Waterlogged soil can be the culprit behind this disease, especially if the Phytophthora fungus is present. But Phytophthora is rarely an issue in soil that drains well, which further reinforces the need to provide your heather with a soil that drains sharply.
Are Heather and Winter Heath Plant the Same?
Not quite, although they both are evergreen shrubs in the Ericaceae family. Heath (genus, Erica) is less cold-hardy and its leaves are needle-shaped.
The Common Name of "Heather" Refers to Habitat, but What About the Botanical Name?
Calluna derives from the Greek, kalluno, meaning to cleanse. Heather was traditionally harvested for use in making brooms.
Are There Other Practical Uses for Heather?
Heather, made into a tea, has also been used in herbal remedies. It has been thought to help with ailments such as cough and upset stomach.