What Do Heather Plants Look Like?

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Heather grows wild on Scottish hillsides.
Heather grows wild on Scottish hillsides. (Image: waterfall down mountainside image by adrian fortune from Fotolia.com)

Common to many parts of the British Isles, heather is a bushy shrub that covers hillside and heath, especially in Scotland, Ireland, and the moors of England, where it is often known as "ling." Many hillsides have a purple haze from the wild-growing heather that provides food for wildlife. The seeds attract birds and red grouse enjoy the young, tender shoots.

Identification

Heather is a low-growing, stubby plant with evergreen leaves. The short stems have many branches that can sometimes grow entangled with each other. The most common type of wild heather produces bell-like, purple flowers at the top of the stems and branches. The leaves of flowering stems grow in pairs, and can be smooth or hairy. Flowers usually appear on hillsides from July and they are at their peak in August.

A bushy shrub with tangled branches.
A bushy shrub with tangled branches. (Image: pot of purple heather in vase isolated on white image by Marek Kosmal from Fotolia.com)

Cultivation

Heather plants are easy to grow and most are suitable for rock gardens, or as thick ground-cover for bedding. The shrubs prefer full-sun and an open site, as they can spread sideways up to 4 feet. Plant at intervals of 2 feet to ensure a good carpet of color. Heather is available for any type of soil; some are lime-tolerant, some prefer an acid soil.

The species Erica carnea is a lime-tolerant, winter flowering plant that comes in shades of pink, red and white. Clip heathers after flowering to maintain a bushy shrub. Summer flowering heathers are good for any type of garden as it is a drought-resistant plant.

Heather is good for ground cover.
Heather is good for ground cover. (Image: a heather garden in scotland image by Doug Stacey from Fotolia.com)

Propagation

Take cuttings of about 2 inches in late spring or early summer and strip away the lower leaves. Dip the bottoms in rooting powder and insert the cuttings in equal amounts of peat and rough sand. Keep them moist in a pot or tray inside a plastic bag. Once they start to root, keep them watered and shaded, and repot them after two months.

Alternatively, plant a complete shrub deep in the ground in spring, making sure the lower half is under soil or compost. Roots should appear by fall.

Take cuttings in spring.
Take cuttings in spring. (Image: butterfly on the heather field in summer sunlight image by asmik from Fotolia.com)

Uses

In the past, the heather growing on moors and heaths was often used as fuel. At times, the stems were tied together in a bundle to make brushes or brooms for sweeping. Some stems were woven into baskets and heather was often used for thatching roofs.

In the Scottish Highlands, crofters cemented the heather stems together with peat to line the walls of their crofts. The flowers of heather plants produce excellent nectar and bees produce delicious honey, which is widely sold in Scotland.

Heather helps make delicious honey.
Heather helps make delicious honey. (Image: honey image by Maria Brzostowska from Fotolia.com)

Lucky White Heather

White heather is rarer in the wild, and because of this it is often regarded as a lucky omen. In Scotland, a sprig of white heather is often given as a gift, or worn by the bridegroom at a wedding. Most garden centers now sell heather plants in a variety of colors.

White heather is lucky.
White heather is lucky. (Image: Erica image by Myl from Fotolia.com)

References

  • “Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain”; Reader’s Digest; 1981
  • “The Best Plants for Your Garden”; Anne Scott-James; 1990
  • “The Easy Garden”; Michael Jefferson-Brown; 1995
  • Trees for Life: Restoring the Caledonian Forest
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