There are about 25 million Americans whose ancestors came from Scotland For another 32 million, including the President, their ancestry can be traced back to Ireland. That’s about 1 person in six. Both of those countries are famous for heather, yet these plants are not widely grown by American gardeners, even though large parts of the country have ideal conditions for them – do you? If you live between zone 4 and zone 6 or 7, and have acid, preferably sandy soil, you can. Heathers grow so easily in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina that wild varieties have become widespread. In the northwest – Washington state and Oregon – they grow happily, even in the very different zones 7 and 8 of those areas. In the east, from Michigan to Maine and through New York and Vermont down into West Virginia, they are easy garden plants, and has found its way into wild areas. In much of Canada too they grow well. Of course if you live in Nevada or southern California you will find it hard, but for many North American gardeners, regardless of where their families came from, a garden of heathers and heaths is an obvious and easy choice.
What’s the difference between Heather and Heath?
Not to be confused with the wild lover from Wuthering Heights, Heath is known to botanists as Calluna, while Heather is called Erica. While similar looking, you will find heath in bloom from late winter through spring, while heather blooms in summer and fall. These plants might not look it, but they are members of the Ericaceae family, and relatives of azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel (Kalmia) and Pieris. These are all beautiful shrubs that can be grown in acidic soils, something that heathers also particularly need, and heaths prefer.
Both these plants have similar foliage, although heaths have needle-like leaves, while in heather they are more scale-like. While heaths feel a bit spiky, heathers feel softer. Heaths rarely grow more than a foot tall, while heathers grow to around 2 feet.
The flowers of both are similar are carried a the ends of the branches, forming long spikes. At first glance you might just see color, but look more closely and discover the charming miniatures flowers, typically colored from white through a variety of pinks into reds and purples.
Why Grow Heathers and Heaths?
With heath blooming in winter and spring, and heathers in summer and fall, by planting both you can have blooms in your heather garden for almost the entire year – a longer season of color than just about any other plant can bring. Add in the colored foliage of some and you can turn a dry, unpromising areas into a year-round garden of interest. is a wonderful way to deal with the parts of your garden that are too sunny for most azaleas and rhododendrons. Since they also stay low to the ground they are perfect in the sunny foreground of shady beds. You can turn a dry area that doesn’t grow grass well, or is rocky, into a wonderful garden. Some people enjoy beds of pure heathers and heaths, but you can also add in sun-tolerant azaleas and rhododendrons and also dwarf evergreens and grasses.
On a smaller scale these plants are small enough to grow in window boxes and planters, and are great, perhaps mixed with some tiny evergreens, for giving winter interest when summer annuals are gone. This will probably only work in zone 6, because the roots will probably be killed in colder areas.
When choosing varieties, notice that many also have colored foliage – often yellow, gold or reds. These look great, and provide more color when not in bloom.
How to Grow Heathers and Heaths
For starters, check the pH of your soil. If you are already growing azaleas and rhododendrons, and they have healthy, green foliage, then you are on acidic soil. Otherwise check it with a simple meter or test kit. Heaths will grow in soils that are 7.0 or less, while heathers prefer it more acidic, around 5.5, and certainly not above 6.5. The soil needs to be well-drained, and wet soil is a potential killer, especially in zones 4 and 5. Sandy soils are perfect, perhaps enriched with pine needles and rotted leaves. Leaf mold – rotted leaves – is wonderful for these plants, so instead of bagging your fall leaves put them through a shredder, wet them and pile them up to rot through the winter. Leaves of deciduous trees are best, and if there are pine needles too then it’s even better for heathers and heaths.
If your soil isn’t suitable, consider growing them in the levels of terracing, making raised beds, or filling the pockets on a rocky slope. The perfect thing is a mixture of peat moss, coarse sand and that leaf mold, in roughly equal parts. Check the pH of the sand you use as some sands can be alkaline, and of course make sure it is salt-free. That leaf mold is useful even if you have ideal soil, as it’s the best dressing for your plants in spring, to feed them and keep things a little damper. Work it in among the stems and around the roots.
Although cold hardy, these plants can be killed in winter by desiccation, so areas that have cold, drying winds sweeping across them are not so suitable. The best winter protection is good snow cover, but if you don’t have that lay some branches of evergreens over the plants – this will shelter them from the wind and also trap snow, giving deeper cover.
It is one thing to plant a new garden, and another to keep it attractive and flourishing for years. This is especially true of heaths and heathers, which can become overgrown and less attractive if not cared for – a factor perhaps in their not being more widely grown. It doesn’t take much work, but trimming and some regular attention is important for outstanding results. Trim them hard after flowering – late spring for heath, late fall or early spring for heathers. Take shears or a hedge trimmer to them, depending on how many you have, and cut back by about one-third. After trimming, work leaf mold in among the branches, which will encourage them to root and spread a little wider. Within a few weeks they will be fresh with new growth, and well on their way to a fabulous display.
A Closer Look At Heaths
Depending on your climate you can have heaths in bloom from late winter into May, although in favored areas they will bloom in February. Also called winter heath or (confusingly) winter heather, most are varieties of Erica carnea, a plant that grows wild across much of Europe. It doesn’t grow wild in the British Isles, where it is replaced by the similar Erica cinerea. There are many varieties, mostly color variations, ranging from ‘Springwood White’ through a whole range of shades of pinks, purple-pinks, red-pinks, and deeper reds and purples. If you live in zone 5, stick to plants that are varieties of Erica cinerea, but in zone 6 you can also grow the popular hybrid, Erica x darleyensis. This plant dates back to 1890, and was found in a nursery in Derbyshire, England. Originally called Erica mediterranea hybrida, that was how it came to America, which explained why it is called Mediterranean Pink here. it’s correct name is ‘Darley Dale’, the town that original nursery was in. Today there are other varieties, including ‘Jack H. Brummage’, with golden-yellow leaves.
A Closer Look at Heathers
Heather is just one species, Calluna vulgaris, a plant that typically found in areas where the land has been over-grazed, which much of Scotland and Ireland were. It survived grazing, re-sprouting in ways other shrubs and plants won’t. about 2 feet tall, twice the size of heaths, it makes a great transition from taller plants to an edging of heaths, and is ideal for ground-cover over rocky slopes of poor soil. There might only be one species, but there are many varieties. Some are in bloom as early as July, and others will still be blooming in October, so you can have flowers for months.
Many also have colored leaves – yellows, reds and frosty silvers, and some change foliage color in winter, so with a good selection your heather garden will always look great.