How to Grow and Care for Heather Shrubs

Heather shrub with small pink racemes and scale-like leaves in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

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
 Family  Ericaceae
 Plant Type  Broadleaf, evergreen shrub
 Mature Size   From a few inches to 3 feet
 Sun Exposure   Full sun to partial shade
 Soil Type  Gravelly/sandy
 Soil pH  Acidic
 Hardiness Zones 4 to 6
 Native Area  Eurasia

Heather Care

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 shrub with scale-like leaves branching out and small pink raceme flowers on the right

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Heather shrub branches closeup with small pink raceme flowers

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Heather shrubs in varying colors sectioned in garden with trees in back

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Heather shrub branches with scale-like leaves and small pink buds closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

Heather blooms best in full sun in zones 4 and 5. In zone 6, it profits from some afternoon shade.

Soil

Providing heather with very well-drained soil is critical and constitutes its primary soil requirement.

Water

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.

Fertilizer

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.

Pruning

Prune heather in early spring. Mature heather tends to become leggy, so pruning will keep it more compact and, thereby, more attractive.

Propagating Heather

You can propagate heather by taking cuttings, following these simple steps:

  1. Fill a pot with soilless mix.
  2. Sterilize pruners with alcohol.
  3. 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).
  4. Dip tip of cutting in rooting hormone.
  5. Make a hole in the soilless mix with a pencil. Place cutting in the hole, gently firming the soil around it.
  6. Water. Put pot in indirect sunlight.
  7. 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:

  1. Spread seed over a fire-resistant tray and put the tray in an oven at 250 degrees F.
  2. Let them heat up for 30 seconds.
  3. Fill a seed tray with a soilless mix.
  4. Sow seed on top of the mix.
  5. Sprinkle the seed lightly with additional soilless mix to cover them.
  6. Using a spray bottle, dampen the soil.
  7. Put the tray in indirect sunlight.

Overwintering

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

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.

Root Rot

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.

FAQ
  • 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.