Winter Heaths and Heather Plants

Flowers for Winter

My picture shows how gorgeous heather is when in flower.
Winter heath blooms for an extraordinarily long time. David Beaulieu

Botanical Classification, Plant Taxonomy of Winter Heath Plants

Plant taxonomy classifies the winter heath plants I deal with in this article as Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink'. The latter is the cultivar name.

Notice that, while sometimes referred to as heather plants, Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink' is more precisely termed "winter heath." That is because, technically, the true heather plants are classified as Calluna vulgaris. But the various types of Erica, which are closely related to Calluna vulgaris, are grouped with the latter and also loosely referred to as "heather plants." I use the two terms interchangeably in this article.

Winter heaths are evergreen sub-shrubs, displaying a mounding growth habit with dense foliage.

Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink' is a hybrid, its parents being Erica carnea and Erica erigenaErica carnea is native to central and southern Europe, Erica erigena to Ireland (which is why its common name is Irish heath). Examples of cultivars of the two parents are:

  1. E. carnea 'Springwood Pink' (USDA planting zones 5-7)
  2. E. erigena 'Golden Lady' (zones 7-9)

'Springwood Pink' stays short (its maximum height is 1 foot, but it often remains shorter than that), suggesting that it be used as a ground cover. The same holds true for 'Golden Lady,' with the added bonus that its evergreen foliage is golden in color.

Plant Specs

Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink' is very much its parents' child when it comes to height. It, too, reaches a maximum height of about 1 foot tall at maturity (with a spread of up to twice that).

Its leaves take on the form of tiny needles (as opposed to the scale-like leaves of Calluna vulgaris). The pink flowers are bell-shaped and almost totally cover the shrubs when the plants are in bloom. The common name "winter heath" alludes to the blossoming period.

But exact flowering time will depend on your location. Here in New England it begins blooming for me in November, so I could easily characterize it as a late-fall flower. But blooms persist through the winter (during mild winters), so I could just as easily think of them as "winter flowers" (which sounds like an oxymoron to a New Englander). Then again, the floral color is still there in early spring when we have dug out from under the snowy blanket laid upon us by Old Man Winter, so it would not be unfair to call it an early-spring bloomer, vying with Adonis and witch hazel for Most Precocious honors.

USDA Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Scotch heather (Calluna vulgaris), indigenous to northern Eurasia, can be grown as far north as planting zone 4, but Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink' is not quite so cold-hardy: zone 6 is listed as its northern limit, although it can be grown in zone 5 if provided with optimal soil conditions and protection. Meanwhile, zone 8 is listed as its southern limit.

Grow in full sun in the North for optimal performance. Like azaleas and rhododendrons and mountain laurel, for example, these small shrubs grow best in moist but well-drained ground that has an acidic soil pH.

Care: Pruning, Fertilizing, Watering, Mulching

Prune (in this case, "shear" is a better way of putting it) after flowering. This plant is very forgiving when it comes to being pruned. Mine became rather lopsided at one point; to correct this flaw, I sheared it heavily. The shrub responded well, eventually regaining the shape that I wanted it to have.

When you fertilize, do so with the type of fertilizer you would use for azaleas and other acid-loving plants, or else use compost. But there is no need to fertilize every year. Irrigate in the absence of rain. Apply mulch to retain moisture in the soil.

Outstanding Feature, Uses in Landscaping, and a Closely-Related Cultivar

As small shrubs with dense foliage, heather plants can be massed together to form a ground cover that will suppress weeds. Because they require good drainage, they are a candidate for rock gardens, but they do not tolerate dry soil as well as many other rock-garden plants, so choose their companions wisely (so that all your rock garden plants are "on the same page" when it comes to water needs).

With their evergreen foliage and a profusion of flowers at a time of year when few other things may be blooming, winter heath plants are valued by homeowners seeking year-round interest in the yard.

There is also a cultivar of these small evergreen shrubs that has white flowers, namely Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean White'.

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