Heath and Heather: Facts About Interesting and Lovely Plants

Heathtwo

Heath flowers emerging from a hedge near my home in late March

Heath and heather are lovely plants that I enjoy observing on my walks. They are very similar to each other but aren’t identical. Heath is more common than heather in my neighbourhood. Some varieties that are commonly grown in gardens bloom in our winter and early spring conditions, which many people appreciate (including me). I don’t have far to walk to see them. Local people grow other types of heath as well as heather. The plants are very popular.

Some Differences Between Heath and Heather

Heath and heather are often low-growing plants and have small, bell-like or tubular flowers. The flowers are purple, pink, or white. They are born in elongated clusters known as racemes. The individual flowers are small, but collectively they produce a lovely splash of colour. The plants are evergreen.

Heath and heather are so similar that they are often confused. They are frequently lumped together and referred to as “heather”, but there are some differences between the plants. One that is quite easy to observe is that heath plants have needle-like leaves while heather has flat, scale-like ones. Heath plants belong to the genus Erica and heather to the genus Calluna. Both genera (the plural of genus) belong to the family Ericaceae.

Common names of plants can often be confusing. The scientific name is more important for identifying a plant. If someone simply wants to enjoy the sight of heath or heather flowers, however, distinguishing the plants or identifying their scientific name may be unimportant. As William Shakespeare says in Romeo and Juliet, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

Heathtapestry

A tapestry of white and pink heath flowers in a garden in my neighbourhood

Heath Plants

The facts in this article apply to heath and heather as I see them where I live and as other people often see them in gardens and in the wild. There are many species or varieties in the Erica and Calluna genera, however. Some of them have unusual features for those of us used to seeing plants such as the ones in my photos.

Some heath plants are much taller than the low-growing shrubs that are common where I live and grow as erect bushes or even as trees. The tree heath (Erica arborea) may be as tall as twenty-three feet when it’s growing in its native habitat in Africa.

Ericaarborea

Erica arborea in the Canary Islands (Photo by Frank Vincentz via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Erica cinerea is a common heath species in Britain. Its common name is bell heather, even though it belongs to the heath genus. It has beautiful dark pink to purple flowers that are an important source of nectar for insects. Heather honey is made from the nectar. According to The Scottish Wildlife Trust, the honey is dark, fragrant, and very popular.

Ericacinerea (2)

A close-up view of bell heather flowers and their needle-like leaves (Photo by Umberto Ferrando via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 license)

Heather Plants

A “true” heather plant is strongly associated with Scotland, where it’s widespread in the wild areas of the country.  It forms beautiful pink mats when it’s in bloom. The heather is sometimes called ling and is also known simply as “heather”. Its scientific name is Calluna vulgaris.

O the summer time has come
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And wild mountain thyme
Grows around the purple heather.
Will you go, lassie, go?

(First verse of a traditional Scottish song)

CallunaVulgaris (2)

Calluna vulgaris flowers (Photo by Aqwis via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Ling frequently grows on heaths and moors and in the drier parts of bogs. The soil in its habitat is often acidic and of low quality (at least compared to the soil in which many other plants grow). Heaths and moors are areas of open land that support low plants. There is some overlap in the meanings of the terms, but a moor is often found at higher elevations than a heath and may have damp and peaty soil. Bogs have very wet soil and are rich in dead plant material such such as the remains of moss, or peat.

Ling flowers from August to October. It’s admired for its beauty when it’s in bloom. Although its flowers are often pink or purple, they are occasionally white. At least in the past, the plant was used for practical purposes, as the quote below shows.

Historically,  heather has been used for many purposes, such as fuel, fodder, building materials, thatch, packing and ropes. It was also used to make brooms, which is how it got its Latin name – Calluna is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘to brush’. (Quote from The Wildlife Trusts)

Calluna-vulgaris-closup (2)

A close-up view of Calluna vulgaris showing the scale-like leaves (Photo by Pmg via Wikimedia Commons, public domain license)

Many varieties and cultivars of Calluna vulgaris exist. Some have a mild but pleasant fragrance. Others are appreciated for more than the appearance of their flowers or the pleasure of detecting their fragrance. Some versions have beautiful gold, orange, or red leaves, depending on the time of year.

I don’t grow heather or heath myself at the moment. It’s something that I’m considering for the future when conditions are right. I’ve seen photos of some beautiful cultivated versions of the plants. Fortunately, many people have placed heath on the edge of their property by the sidewalk, where I can admire and photograph their plants.

Heathone

Heath flowers in my neighbourhood at the end of March

Heather and heath are interesting plants to examine. I appreciate their colour, especially when little else is in bloom. In many places, it’s possible to have heath or heather in bloom in a garden in every month of the year, provided the correct varieties are chosen. I’ve never tried this plan, but it sounds interesting. I can certainly understand why the plants are popular where I live and in many other parts of the world.

References

 

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