What Is Heather?

Heather, in the broadest sense, is the common name given to plants in the Ericaceae family of flowering plants. Also known as the heather or heath family, this family includes not only many common plants called heaths and heathers, but also other shrubs such as fruit bushes like cranberries, huckleberries, blueberries, and acid-loving shrubs like rhododendron and azaleas. Plants in the Ericaceae family can be herbs, sub-shrubs, shrubs and trees. Typically, they are evergreen.

When we think about the term heather, however, most gardeners will picture certain (usually evergreen) shrubs in the genera Erica and Calunna. Erica is sometimes referred to as ‘winter heather’, while Calluna species are referred to as ‘summer heather’.

Did you know? The genus Calluna used to be included in the Erica genus. But it has now been separately classified since it differs in several minor but important ways. Calluna have much smaller leaves and the flower corolla of these plants consists of separate petals.

Erica and calluna species are grown in many gardens for their decorative effect. They are frequently seen in planting schemes for acidic soils, along with conifers. They are well known for their capacity to create massed ground cover beneath conifers and dwarf conifers, and for providing colour and interest all year round. In addition to finding a place in garden soil, heathers can also often work well in pots or containers to provide interest over the colder months.

Popular Heathers Grown In The UK

When heather first springs to mind, UK gardeners are most likely to picture the heather that is found widely distributed in the hills of Scotland, and in upland regions elsewhere in the British Isles. This heather is Calluna vulgaris. And there are many named cultivars or this heather to choose from. But there are also a number of other heathers grown in the UK in gardens. Popular heathers include:

When And How To Plant Heather

You can purchase heathers in garden centres, plant nurseries or online as small or large plants all year round. Typically, they are not expensive to buy, and are sold in pots of 9cm or larger.

Heathers and heaths in the Calluna and Erica genus’ are best planted out, however, in spring or in autumn, when the temperatures and moisture levels are generally best for avoiding transplantation shock.

If heathers are grown in the ground, then spring is generally the best choice. Though if you plan on growing heather in containers, then autumn is a good time to start.

Older plants (which have woody stems and little vegetative growth towards the base can be used to create individual rooted cuttings through a process known as dropping, which is best to begin to undertake in spring.

In spring, the plant is dug up and replanted in a hole large enough to bury around 2/3 of the plant. The soil, and a mix of half-grit and half coir are worked around the stems up to the soil level, so just the shoots are visible. After a summer, when it is watered in dry weather, the whole plant is lifted in autumn, the rooted shoots severed from the parent and potted up or placed into their final growing positions.

In spring, you can also propagate existing heather plants through the process known as layering. This involves bending a stem down to the ground and keeping it in contact with the soil so that it forms new roots, before severing this section of the parent plant to create a new one.

It is also possible to take semi-ripe cuttings from Erica in July or August, or of Calluna from August to September. These cuttings should be covered and kept in a shaded position for 8-12 weeks before they are potted up or moved into their final growing positions.

What Conditions Do They Prefer?

Heathers typically prefer acidic soil conditions. But other than this they can be relatively unfussy and low maintenance plants. They tend to prefer plenty of sun, and free-draining soil. Though they do not require particularly high fertility, as they have evolved in nutrient-poor heathland, they will prefer a soil structure with plenty of organic matter.

The pH of your soil is one of the most important factors in determining which heathers will grow well where you live. Along with climate and conditions, soil pH should be in your mind when you are choosing these types of plants for your garden. In any garden, the soil pH will fall into one of three categories. If the pH is below 7, your soil is acidic and many heathers will be an excellent choice.

You can acidify soil by adding certain ingredients. Most commonly sulphur is added. But where the change required in minimal, you can slowly lower soil pH over time by adding plenty of organic matter – especially mulches of acidic organic matter such as pine needles or oak leaves.

But rather than trying to amend soil significantly where you live, it is best to choose plants suited to where you live. If you want to grow plants that do not like the local conditions, you can still grow them in containers. Even if you have alkaline (limey/chalky) soil where you live, you might still consider growing heathers in pots.

Erica gracilis shrubs

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

Avoid planting most heathers in a particularly alkaline environment. (Though there are some, such as Erica carnea and E x darleyensis, which can cope with heavier, more alkaline soils.) Generally speaking, you should avoid deep shade, and overly damp conditions.


Frequently Asked Questions

When Does Heather Flower?

Heathers flower throughout the year. There are heathers for UK gardens that will bloom in winter/ spring or summer/autumn, so if you select the right options you can have heathers blooming in your garden almost every month of the year.

For winter/spring blooms, you will choose heathers like cultivars of:

  • Erica carnea
  • Erica x darleyensis
  • Erica lusitanica
  • Erica arbora var. alpina

For summer/autumn, options will usually be cultivars of:

  • Calluna vulgaris
  • Erica cinerea

Certain Calluna vulgaris (such as the ‘Garden Girls’ bud bloomer series) will have buds that remain closed, but give plenty of colour for several months, stretching from late summer to autumn and even into winter.

Is Heather Evergreen?

Heathers common in UK gardens are evergreen shrubs.

If the foliage is yellowing, environmental conditions may be to blame. If the soil has become too alkaline, for example, this may occur. If grown in the ground in acidic conditions, most heathers will not need to be fed. But if the soil is not ideal or the heathers are grown in containers, feed them with an ericaceous fertilizer.

However, as those who already love heathers will know, these evergreens are not always green. Cultivar selection is not only about thinking about the colour of the blooms, as the foliage of different varieties can also add to their ornamental appeal. Some have attractively coloured foliage that alters later in the year.

For example, Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’ has copper foliage in summer that changes to a brick red hue over the winter months. You can often find options with foliage not only in green but also in yellows, bronzes and reds that really enliven the winter garden.

Where Is The Best Place To Plant Heather?

Heathers are typically best planted in acidic soil (or ericaceous potting mix) in a location that receives plenty of sunlight. Ideally, the soil will be relatively light, and will thrive where there is plenty of well-rotted organic matter mixed in.

Heathers will look great in a bed or border with, for example,  a variety of pines and other conifers, white-stemmed birches, Sorbus (rowan), Cornus (dogwoods), Gaultheria mucronata, and other trees, shrubs and perennial plants that like acidic conditions.

Heathers are an excellent choice for exposed or particularly cold gardens, and are also excellent for those who want to provide colour and interest year-round. They can also be excellent for borders around the edges of food-producing zones, or in a garden dedicated to wildlife. Because they are considered in particular to be a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

Since heathers are compact, they can work very well for small gardens, and yet they can also make a strong impression and look great when planted over a wider area in a larger space.

Most heathers work well towards the front of a bed or border, where they create good ground cover. They can also look wonderful on a sunny slope, where you can capture some of the beauty of the rugged landscape of the Scottish Highlands or an upland moor.  But tree heathers like Erica arborea, Erica lucitanica and Erica veitchii grow taller, and can work well as stand alone specimens, or in a mixed and informal hedgerow.

Can You Put Heather in Pots?

Heather is an excellent choice for container gardens. Just remember that most heathers need an ericaceous soil mix. And though the right potting mix will ensure acidic conditions, you will usually need to add an ericaceous fertilizer after a couple of months to avoid any issues.

When Should You Prune Heather Plants?

Heathers (Calluna and Erica) require only limited pruning. They are in RHS pruning group 10. Generally, they should only be trimmed after they flower – cut faded flower stems back to the base. Heathers do not typically regenerate well from old wood, so if they have become woody and leggy, replacement is usually the best option. You can also gain new plants and propagate via ‘dropping’, as described above.

Does Heather Spread?

Erica will typically grow around 1ft tall by 1.5ft wide, while Calluna heathers will usually grow to around 2ft tall, and 2-3ft wide at maturity. Deciding how far apart to place heathers, and the distance they require from other plants, is crucial to creating a successful garden. It is a good idea to space for the size of your plants at maturity.

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