With their evergreen foliage and a large number 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. These tiny bushes are earning a place among the most popular acid-loving plants in the North American landscape.
Botanical Classification and Plant Taxonomy
Plant taxonomy classifies the winter heath plants discussed here 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." The two terms are used interchangeably here.
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 erigena. Erica 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:
- E. carnea 'Springwood Pink' (zones 5 to 7)
- E. erigena 'Golden Lady' (zones 7 to 9)
'Springwood Pink' stays short (its maximum height is one 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.
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. In New England, it begins blooming in November, so you could easily characterize it as a late-fall flower. But blooms persist through the winter (during mild winters), so you 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 after the snow recedes, so it would not be unfair to call it an early-spring bloomer, vying with Adonis and witch hazel for "earliest" honors.
Scotch heather (Calluna vulgaris), indigenous to northern Eurasia, can be grown as far north as planting zone 4. Cultivars include:
- 'Alba' (white flowers)
- 'Alportii' (crimson flowers)
- 'Aurea' (pink flowers, yellow leaves)
- 'Cuprea' (purple flowers, yellow leaves)
- 'Else Frye' (flowers white and double)
But Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean Pink' is not quite so cold-hardy as Scotch heather: zone 6 is listed as its northern limit, although it can be grown in zone 5 if it is provided with ideal soil conditions and protection. Meanwhile, zone 8 is listed as its southern limit.
Grow in full sun in the North for best performance. Like azaleas and rhododendrons and mountain laurel, for example, these small shrubs grow best in a moist but well-drained ground that has an acidic soil pH.
Shear it after flowering. This plant is very forgiving when it comes to being pruned. It may become rather lopsided at some point; to correct this flaw, shear it heavily. The shrub will respond well, eventually regaining the shape that you want 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.
Uses in Landscaping
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).
There is also a cultivar of these small evergreen shrubs that have white flowers: Erica x darleyensis 'Mediterranean White'.