Heathers are low maintenance evergreen bushes producing urn-shaped flowers ranging from white to rose to deep purple, which are borne on spikes above a compact mass of low-growing or spreading foliage. When people refer to heathers they are technically talking about heathers and heaths, both of which belong to the Ericaceae family. They can be divided into species called Calluna (heathers) and Erica (heaths). In practice, both are virtually identical in terms of form and growth habit and thrive in the same soil, light and water conditions; the main differences between the species are foliage type and winter hardiness.
Heathers (Calluna) have small, flat, green scale-like leaves carried in opposite pairs with tiny hairs that gives the foliage a grey tint. Heaths (Erica) on the other hand have more needle-like leaves borne in whorls. Heathers (Calluna) are very hardy and have a prominent position in most heathlands and moorlands in
Europe. Heathers are particularly characteristic of the rocky highlands of Scotland where they have grown profusely for centuries, sometimes in places where few other plants can survive (the well-known Scottish Heather is Calluna Vulgaris). True heaths (Erica) offer more colours but are generally less hardy, although still suitable for most gardens in the UK. Heaths also tolerate more heat than heathers, making them a good choice for Southern regions, though they dislike extremely humid areas.
Uses in the Garden
Given their similarities, we consider the uses of heathers and heaths together (henceforth referred to collectively as heathers). Heather plants are brilliant for bringing a natural feel and splash of colour to your garden. They are best planted in bold groupings of 5+ heathers in each variety to give a good overall effect. These ‘waves’ of heathers look best if they are planted in an informal shape with curved edges to the border and curved transitions between variety groupings.
With careful planning, you can have a heather border that blooms from June until November. Their low, dome-shaped growth habit and defiance to harsh conditions also makes them great for growing in the rock garden, combined with dwarf conifers and small shrubs. Heathers in the rock garden will brighten up dull winter days when few other plants put on a show. In smaller gardens, heathers can also be planted in individual varieties, best chosen so the colours contrast or compliment each other. They are also great for lining paths, growing as ground cover plants or using in containers, and will last for up to 25 years.
Examples of heathers used effectively in planters
Choosing Heather Varieties
The appeal of the flowers is secondary to the fabulous foliage colour display for many heathers, so don’t solely focus on the colour of the blooms. Heathers often turn to intense shades of orange, red and yellow in winter when other plants are looking tired. Flowering seasons for different varieties typically fall between late July to November. Spent blooms will turn brown but can still be left of the plants over the winter and often lead to interesting decorative effects, particularly when there is snow or frost.
We have fully detailed all of the best heather varieties at the end of this article, but just offer a selection of some of the best heaths and heathers for now before leading into planting advice. For dramatic yellow foliage consider Calluna Aurea, Erica Golden Starlet or Erica Foxhollow. Calluna Wickwar Flame has stunning golden-orange foliage and mauve flowers, whilst Calluna Silver Queen is the best silver variety available. Choose Erica Silberschmelze or Erica White Perfection for white flowers, Erica Ghost Hills for yellow flowers or Erica R B Cooke if you’re looking for the deepest of the pink-flowering varieties. RHS Gold Merit winners include Calluna Anette, Calluna Darkness and Calluna Firefly.
When to PlantPlanting Advice
Heather plants supplied in pots can be planted at any time of the year when the ground is not frozen or waterlogged.
Where to Plant
Heathers are best planted in beds totally devoted to themselves, except for the addition of a few conifers or small evergreen shrubs to provide contrast in height and form. Plant heathers in open areas, along pathways or up hillsides. They are suitable for coastal gardens as they will tolerate the salt spray and work well in rock gardens as they require similar acidic soil conditions to dwarf conifers. Avoid planting in dry sites, under trees or in areas exposed to harsh winter winds because, as evergreens, heathers will suffer dehydration. Heathers do not become drought tolerant immediately, so if your garden is very dry, they may not be the best choice.
Heathers need an acidic, preferably moist (but not soggy) soil. They are tolerant of very poor, rocky soil, but the acidity is important. If you have a neutral or alkaline soil, work in acidic soil amendments such as damp peat moss. Avoid the use of sedge peat or spent mushroom compost as these can be too alkaline. Yellow leaves are a sign that the pH of the soil lacks enough acidity for the plants. If you have a heavy clay soil, either double-dig the ground (to 2 spades’ depth) and incorporate lots of peat or ericaceous compost mixed with one-third of sand or grit to improve drainage, or plant your heathers on a raised bed using an equal mix of compost, composted bark or peat moss and sand. This will create a free-draining, acidic soil. Soggy soil can lead to root and stem rot or fungal diseases.
A heather garden should be planted in a position where it will be unshaded for all or most of the day. If possible, site your heather plants so the main view is from the south, as foliage heathers always colour better on their southern side. Planting heathers where they will enjoy 6+ hours of sunlight each day is best for foliage effect, with afternoon shade in hotter areas. If they are given too much shade, the blooms will become scarce, foliage colour will be dulled and new growth spindly.
Spacing of heather plants is important to strike the right balance between allowing good air circulation between plants whilst also ensuring they are close enough for the growth of each plant to join up over time to provide complete ground coverage. A good trick is to multiply the square footage of your planting area by 0.44 to determine how many heather plants you need (e.g. for a 8 foot by 8 foot plot, you’ll need 64 x 0.44 = 28 plants). If you work in metres not feet, plan on using 5 plants per square metre (4 per square yard), making allowances for other plants nearby that have not yet reached their mature spread. If planting heathers as part of a rock garden, use no more than 1 conifer or shrub per 5 square metres (50 square feet).
Correct spacing of heather plants is important
Loosen the soil before planting. Dig holes twice as wide as each plant’s root ball to encourage roots to spread. After removing each heather plant from its pot, gently tease out the roots and spread them across the planting hole. Heathers like to be planted deeply with the lower foliage resting on the soil surface. The addition of a little non-burning fertiliser, mixed into the planting soil, will encourage new root growth. Mulch around the base of your heathers after planting using an acidic organic matter such as leaf mould, pine straw or peat moss.
Growing Heathers in Containers
If growing heathers in a container, use ericaceous compost and/or peat. Keeping the compost moist yet allowing for free drainage is key. We recommend installing a 2.5-5cm (1-2 inch) layer of grit at the base of your planting container to improve drainage. Consider mixing some water retaining gel into your compost to improve moisture retention. As for garden plantings, plant your heathers deep in the compost.
Shear newly planted heathers to foster a bushy growth habit. Water fortnightly for the first 3 months to keep the ground moist but not sodden Initial Pruning and Watering
Drought tolerance is normally established within 2-3 years from planting, after which time your heather plants will take care of themselves. Until this time, water as required to keep the soil evenly moist, but never soggy.
Weeding and Feeding
Make sure the heather border is kept weed-free. This is best done by hand rather than using a hoe as heathers are shallow rooted. Apply an annual mulch of bark, peat or ericaceous compost to help suppress weeds. Fertilise once with ericaceous plant food at planting time. Further feeding is not typically required thereafter, although if the bloom production is reduced or foliage turns pale, you can re-apply the ericaceous plant food from late winter to mid-spring.
Annual ShearingOnce a ‘wave’ of heather plants have become established and filled the gaps between them, they will act as an effective weed suppressant, so little weeding is typically required once the plants have become established.
In early spring (before any buds have set) shear off the top third of foliage growth from your heathers, removing any remaining dead flowers from the previous year as you do so. Removing old stems will encourage your heathers to develop fresh new growth, maintain a bushy habit and prevent them from becoming thin and woody. This way the plant is constantly renewed.
Heathers being sheared in early spring
Pests and Diseases
Heathers have few pests but can be susceptible to powdery mildew if they are planted too close together and air flow is impaired. The best way to tackle powdery mildew is with a fungus killer spray. Heathers can also be damaged by large animals such as dogs or deer trampling on them, so consider the planting spot carefully to keep them out of harms way.
There are many different heather and heath varieties, providing gardeners of all abilities with a fantastic range of flower/foliage shapes and colours and flowering times. A full list and photographs of all the best varieties are given below.Heathers by Variety
- Calluna vulgaris Amethyst – dark green foliage and long-lasting purple-crimson flowers which appear from August to January.
- Calluna vulgaris Anette – clear pink buds produced above mid-green foliage from August to November. The buds retain their colour when dried making them ideal for flower arranging.
- Calluna vulgaris Aurea – produces beautiful sprays of purple flowers in September above contrasting golden-green foliage. Small variety reaching just 20cm above the ground with a max spread of 45cm.
- Calluna vulgaris Blazeaway – bright yellow spring new growth, turning mint-green as it matures then fiery-red in winter. Produces masses of showy lavender-pink blooms in clusters from July-October.
- Calluna vulgaris Cuprea – distinctive, coppery foliage that takes on a brilliant shade of bronze-red over the winter and beautiful, urn-shaped rose to purple-pink flowers on long racemes from August to October.
- Calluna vulgaris Darkness – masses of crimson flowers from August to October above a compact, upright mound of mid-green foliage. Ideal for adding a splash of autumn colour to a window box or tub.
- Calluna vulgaris Firefly – splendid, warm bronze-gold foliage which takes on a fiery orange-red in winter. Leaf colour is constantly changing & it produces rich pink flowers in long racemes from August-September.
- Calluna vulgaris H. E. Beale – long, tapering racemes of stunning double shell pink flowers which are produced above dark green evergreen foliage between August and November.
|Calluna Darkness||Calluna Firefly||calluna vulgaris H. E. Beale|
- Calluna vulgaris Silver Knight – stunning lavender-pink flowers from August to September above downy, grey evergreen foliage which darkens as the cold weather sets in and takes on a purple tinge in the winter.
- Calluna vulgaris Silver Queen – softly-textured, rich silvery-grey foliage acts as a backdrop to masses of tiny, urn-shaped light mauve to deep lilac-mauve flowers which clothe the stems from July-September.
- Calluna vulgaris Sister Anne – bright green foliage with a beautiful, silvery cast that darkens to coppery-bronze over the winter and lots of pale mauve flowers from July to September. Spreading growth habit
- Calluna vulgaris Spring Torch – mid-green leaves that are tinged orange-red in spring and display eye-catching growing tips. Masses of showy, purple-pink to rose-pink flowers from August to September.
|Calluna Silver Knight||Calluna Silver Queen||Calluna Spring Torch|
- Calluna vulgaris Wickwar Flame – golden evergreen foliage and mauve flowers which appear between August and November. As winter approaches, the foliage takes on brilliant shades of oranges and reds.
- Erica Carnea Atrorubens – dark evergreen leaves and gorgeous light pink flowers which compliment the foliage. It flowers between January and April and has a potential height and spread of 20cm by 60cm.
- Erica Carnea Loughrigg – dark purplish-red flowers from late winter to spring set against a backdrop of dark green foliage. Perfect for adding colour and interest to a tub or window box.
- Erica Carnea Pink Spangles – produces a dynamic, bi-coloured floral display of shell-pink blooms with deeper pink tips in racemes that emerge from attractive, lime-coloured buds between January and April.
- Erica Carnea R. B. Cooke – forms a wide mat of handsome, spiny dark green foliage that provides a perfect backdrop to masses of pink flowers which are produced in clusters and darken throughout the season.
|Erica Atrorubens||Erica Loughrigg||Erica Pink Spangles||Erica R. B. Cooke|
- Erica Carnea Vivellii – dark bronze-green evergreen foliage and deep purple-pink flowers from winter through to spring. Small-growing variety, making it ideal for winter boxes or tubs.
- Erica Carnea Winter Beauty – dark green evergreen foliage and deep rose pink flowers from early winter to mid-spring. It prefers a site in full sun to light shade and is ideal for adding colour to a window box or tub.
- Erica Carnea Golden Starlet – golden-yellow foliage which turns to a stunning shade of lime-green in winter to contrast beautifully with the snowy-white blooms. Winners of the RHS Award of Garden Merit.
- Erica Darleyensis Darley Dale – stiff, glossy, mid-green, needle-like foliage that becomes attractively tipped with creamy-pink in spring. Produces an abundance of bright lilac-pink flowers which darken with age.
|Erica Vivellii||Erica Winter Beauty||Erica Golden Starlet||Erica Darley Dale|
- Erica Darleyensis Ghost Hills – bears attractive pink flowers that are borne in November and last right through to late May. These deepen on ageing to heliotrope and accompany the green foliage superbly.
- Erica Darleyensis J. W. Porter – dark green foliage with beautiful cream and red growing tips in the spring. Produces lots of rich, mauve-pink flowers in clusters which clothe the plant from January to May.
- Erica Darleyensis Kramer’s Rote – clusters of magenta flowers from January-April above handsome, bronze foliage. Spectacular planted in bold drifts alongside other varieties with contrasting foliage and flowers.
- Erica Darleyensis Silberschmelze – bears white flowers from October right through to the end of May. It has medium green foliage that should be lightly pruned to shape when young (preferably after flowering).
|Erica Ghost Hills||Erica J. W. Porter||Erica Kramer’s Rote||Erica Silberschmelze|
|· Erica Darleyensis White Perfection – This is a vigorous, evergreen variety with stiff, bright green, needle-like foliage that becomes attractively tipped with yellow during the spring. Often considered to be the best white variety available, it produces masses of stunning, small, bell-shaped, pure white flowers in spike-like racemes from December to April. Great for planting in groups to create a stunning, winter groundcover effect in full sun. It’s also suitable for growing in containers and produces nectar that will attract bees and other wildlife to the garden. It has an outstanding, bushy growth habit with upright branches but a spreading shape overall.||Erica White Perfection|