How to Grow Heathers and Heaths

When people mention heather, they are almost always talking about two different genera of plants: heaths and heathers. Although both belong to the Ericaceae family, they are botanically different and are divided into the Calluna genus and the Erica genus. For practical purposes, however, they are nearly identical, sharing color, form, and growth habits. They are all evergreen, well-mannered, and low-maintenance plants that thrive in similar conditions of sunlight, water, and soil. Winter hardiness is the only major difference between species.

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Must-Know Facts About Heather

The Difference Between Heathers and Heaths

All true heathers are cultivars of just one species, Calluna vulgaris (which some botanists erroneously classify as Erica vulgaris), and there are easily more than 500 varieties available. Most are summer-blooming, ranging from white to rose to deep purple, and their foliage is green to fire orange; their leaves are small and scalelike. Most form low-growing mounds or spreading mats.

For the heather lover in the North, these are the plants of choice, as opposed to the true heaths, which offer more colors but are generally less hardy. Calluna are typically hardy in Zones 5-7 but may thrive as far north as Zone 3 with adequate winter protection or snow cover. These low, mounding shrubs are the king of Scotland, the famous heather of the Highlands.

The true heaths belong to the Erica genus and include more than 700 species and countless cultivars, such as winter heath (Erica carnea), bell heath (Erica cinerea), Darley Dale heath (Erica x darleyensis), Cornish heath (Erica vagans), and cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix). Hardiness ranges widely; for instance, Erica carnea will bloom under snow, but many of the South African varieties, such as blood-red heath (Erica cruenta), are best left to the greenhouse and florist trades. The true heaths offer an amazing range of foliage and bloom color, well beyond the pinks of the heathers; they also come in taller shrub forms and even some small trees. With hundreds of species and cultivars suitable for Hardiness Zones 7-9 or 10 (and a few, such as Erica carnea, even hardier), the heaths provide a wide variety of colors and bloom times to fill Southern gardens.

Other than heaths’ greater susceptibility to cold weather, the main difference between heaths and heathers is that heaths have needlelike leaves rather than flat leaves. The scalelike leaves of heather, in fact, feature tiny hairs, which give the foliage a grayish cast. Calluna cultivars also produce blooms where the corolla (or whorl of petals) is completely encased by the calyx (the usually green “leaves” directly beneath a bloom); the Erica species and varieties feature prominent corollas and small calyxes, which often create a two-tone effect to the blooms. However, the bloom shapes are so nearly the same, says Kate Herrick of Rock Spray Nursery in Truro, Massachusetts, “that only a botanist or a true fanatic will know the difference.”

Why Plant Heathers and Heaths?

Of course, the real reason to plant heath or heather is the colorful bloom and foliage. Imagine Monet’s palette loaded with hues of blue, yellow, gold, rose, and green. Imagine a painting built from brush strokes of tall shrubs, lush mounds, and spreading mats. Plant different types of heathers and heaths, and you can have a steady play of form and color as new plants come into bloom when others fade. Plant several varieties en masse on a slope, and an Impressionist’s landscape bursts into vivid life.

As heather fans know, selecting plants by color isn’t as simple as deciding you like pink blooms; selection by bloom color is actually secondary to the foliage display. A heather’s evergreen foliage changes and intensifies in hue during cold weather. For example, Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’ has copper foliage in summer that changes to brick red in winter; Erica x watsonii ‘Dawn’ (a Watson’s heath) has red spring growth that turns to gold later in the year. It is this variability that makes heaths and heathers such arresting plants for the landscape.

“There are so many colors available that selecting plants can be intimidating, and people often make the process more complicated than needed,” Herrick says. The colors are so harmonious, however, that a homeowner should pay more attention to plant sizes and spacing, she advises. Selecting plants that will fill a designated space is easier to achieve than trying to work a plant of every bloom and foliage color into the scheme.

“They are a fascinating family of plants,” Herrick sums up, “and a lot more fun than red geraniums.” Try painting some into your landscape this fall.

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Landscaping With Heather

Heaths and heathers add a low-maintenance jolt of color and interest to the landscape, regardless of the season. Their evergreen foliage (in shades of green, yellow, bronze, and red) sparkles against the weary winter backdrop of tans and browns or the white of snow.

Plant heaths and heathers in open areas, up hillsides, or along pathways. They pair especially well with dwarf conifers, which require similar acidic soil conditions. They tolerate poor, rocky soil and even salt spray, so they’re marvelous along coastal hillsides where little else will grow.

Heaths grow about 1 foot tall by 1 1/2 feet wide; heathers about 2 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide. Space both about as far apart as their mature width and at least 2 feet away from other shrubs to foster good air circulation. For naturalistic mass plantings, Kate Herrick at Rock Spray Nursery suggests multiplying the square footage of your planting area by 0.44 to determine the number of heaths or heathers you’ll need. (A 10-x-10-foot area would require 44 plants.)

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How to Plant and Care for Heather

The growing conditions for these colorful plants are similar. Karla Lortz of Heaths and Heathers Nursery offers these tips.

Prep the Soil

Heaths and heathers are acid lovers, preferring a soil pH of 4.5-5.5. Although some heaths are more tolerant of alkaline soil, particularly Irish heath (Erica erigena), most types will struggle. Work in damp peat moss or other acidic soil amendments, particularly if your soil is pH neutral (6.5-7.5). Till or loosen the soil and dig holes twice as wide as each plant’s root ball to encourage roots to spread.

Provide Drainage

Without good drainage, these plants just won’t grow. For clay soil (which provides neither the right pH nor proper drainage), build a raised bed with equal parts topsoil, sand, and composted bark or peat moss, which will create acidic soil that properly drains. For boggy soil (which may be the right pH but too wet), make a modest berm.

Planting Tips

Shear newly purchased plants to encourage bushiness, and plant in spring or early autumn. Water twice a week for the first several months so the ground is moist but not soggy. This will encourage rapid, vigorous growth to get plants established. Apply a mulch of your choice, preferably an acidic one (such as pine straw, peat moss, or leaf mold). After two or three years, heathers and heaths are generally drought-tolerant and can take care of themselves.

Allow for Spacing

Space the plants about as far apart as the plant’s mature width to allow air circulation, which is important for good foliage growth and color but close enough so the plants will eventually mound together. If you are planting in Zones 7-9, Lortz recommends whorled heath (Erica manipuliflora; ‘Korcula’ is a good cultivar).

Consider Sun Exposure

Allow for a minimum of six hours of sun a day for best foliage effect. The foliage will be best on the south side of the plant, especially for red varieties. Six or more hours of sun are also recommended with afternoon shade in hotter areas. Too much shade makes the plants leggy and dulls the brilliance of those that have colorful foliage.

Consider Winter Exposure

Avoid situating plants in areas that receive harsh winter winds; as evergreens, they suffer severe dehydration. Or apply a winter mulch such as evergreen boughs. In areas with deep snow cover, plants will be fine.

Don’t Fuss

Heaths and heathers actually like poor soil. Giving annual doses of fertilizer is deadlier than not giving any at all. Fertilize once with rhododendron feed upon planting—then leave your plants alone. About the only work you need to do is give them a yearly shearing. This is best done in the spring before any buds have set or, for winter bloomers, after the flowers have faded. Calluna vulgaris should be cut back below the old flowers; the Erica spp. can be lightly pruned to encourage bushiness.

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Our Favorite Heathers

Unless otherwise noted, heathers (Calluna vulgaris) are hardy in Zones 5-7 and are no more than 2 feet high and slightly more as wide.

  • Cultivar: ‘Alba Rigida’ Flowers: White Foliage: Bright green Characteristics: Spreading, very hardy in Maine trials (Zone 4)
  • Cultivar: ‘Firefly’ Flowers: Mauve Foliage: Brick red Characteristics: Excellent for foliage, upright growth
  • Cultivar: ‘H.E. Beale’ Flowers: Silver-pink Foliage: Bronze Characteristics: Double flower, upright growth
  • Cultivar: ‘J.H. Hamilton’ Flowers: Pink Foliage: Dark green Characteristics: Outstanding pink variety, double flower, dwarf habit
  • Cultivar: ‘Mrs. Pat’ Flowers: Light purple Foliage: Pink-tipped Characteristics: Good foliage all year, more difficult to establish than most
  • Cultivar: ‘Spring Torch’ Flowers: Mauve Foliage: Midgreen with yellow-orange to pinkish cream tips Characteristics: Upright growth, excellent foliage color
  • Cultivar:’Tenuis’ Flowers: Lilac Foliage: Dark green Characteristics: Hardiest in Maine trials (Zone 4), early flowering, low growing
  • Cultivar: ‘Tib’ Flowers: Dark pink to purple Foliage: Dark green Characteristics: Double flower variety with long bloom time, bushy habit
  • Cultivar: ‘Velvet Fascination’ Flowers: White Foliage: Downy silver-gray Characteristics: Upright growth, excellent foliage quality
  • Cultivar: ‘Winter Chocolate’ Flowers: Lavender Foliage: Gold-pink to bronze-yellow Characteristics: Provides year-round color, compact plant

Our Favorite Heaths

Heaths tolerate more heat than do heathers and are generally good choices for Southern regions, though they dislike extremely humid areas. Most species grow about 1 foot tall by 1 1/2 feet wide.

  • By BH&G Garden Editors


Heather Flowers

Did you know? Each Heather flower has 30 Heather seeds, so a Heather plant produces up to 150,000 seeds per season.

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) Scotch Heather/Ling Heather, is an evergreen branching shrub. Heather flowers bloom in late summer. Wild species of Heather flowers are usually in purple or mauve shades. The flower’s various cultivars come in colors ranging from white, through pink, a wide range of purples and reds. Different varieties of Heather flowers bloom from late July to November in the northern hemisphere. The flowers may turn brown but still remain on the plants over winter, and this can lead to interesting effects.

Kingdom Plantae Division Magnoliophyta Class Magnoliopsida Order Ericales Family Ericaceae Genus Calluna Heathers are found throughout Western Europe and in some parts of northeastern North America and Siberia. Heather varieties are widely cultivated in rock gardens for cut flower arrangements. A low mound of handsome greenery topped by multiple spikes of colored flowers; Heathers are native to Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Russia, and northern North America. The Heather plant is one of the primary plant species grown on the poor, acid, sandy soils which is typical of heaths.

In Heather flowers, the corolla is showy in true heaths, and in the Erica genus, heathers have showy pink or rarely, white sepals that overlap the corolla. There are two types of Winter Heather plants. The lower, winter spreading types are grown as ground covers, in rockeries, containers or for spot color in flower and shrub beds. While the upright winter varieties are best suited for borders, spot color, massing or as container plants. The flowers of both types are ideal for small winter arrangements.

from our stores – Pickupflowers – the flower expert

Facts About Heather Flower

  • The scientific name, Calluna vulgaris, in general, came from Calluna, from the Greek ‘Kallune’ meaning to clean or brush, as the twigs were used for making brooms and ‘vulgaris’ from the Latin word, meaning common.
  • Heather flowers are a traditional remedy in Swedish herbal medicine.
  • The Heather plant is sometimes also referred to as ‘Ling’ derived either from the old Norse Lyng or from the Anglo Saxon ‘Lig’ meaning fire and referred to as use for fuel.
  • Heather flowers are seen in pink, lavender, white, magenta, amethyst, purple and red.
  • Heather flowers also come in beautiful and varied colors of copper, pink, gold, silvery gray and almost infinite shades of green.
  • Heather, the name most commonly used for the plant, is of Scottish origin presumably derived from the Scots word Haeddre.
  • Heather is one of Scotland’s most prolific and abundant plants.
  • There are a number of reasons why Heathers are so abundant with such a wide distribution. For one, the plant’s reproductive capacity is high with seeds produced in very large numbers.
  • Heathers form dense stands that shade and out-compete low-growing vegetation, making it an unsuitable environment for native flora and fauna.

Growing Heather flowers

  • Heaths and Heathers prefer full sun and well-drained, acidic soil, and they need protection from cold winter winds.
  • Heather plants can be planted anytime when the ground is not frozen.
  • The soil for planting should contain mix peat moss, compost or processed manure with your existing soil.
  • The addition of a little non-burning fertilizer, mixed into the planting soil, will encourage new root growth.
  • First, the Heather plants must be planted so the root-ball is level with the soil surface.
  • Second, be careful not to pile mulch up over the root system. In fact, it is best not to mulch them at all.
  • Third, heather must be planted in soil that is well drained, they will not tolerate continual wet feet.
  • Firm the soil around the plant and water-in.

Heather Plant Care

  • The Heather plants should be pruned each year immediately after they have finished flowering, which results in additional flowers the following year.
  • A well prepared soil with good drainage is needed.
  • A good feeding fertilizer is required. Poor foliage color or stunted growth would indicate the need for feeding.
  • So if that occurs, feed the heather with a rhododendron type fertilizer.
  • The best time to feed them is in late winter or late spring.
  • Apply the fertilizer at the drip-line of the plant, then water-in thoroughly.

Calluna vulgaris is the sole species encompassing the Calluna genus.

A part of the flowering plant family Ericaceae, this perennial plant has several common names including:

  • Common Heather
  • Ling plant
  • Heather
  • Scotch Heather

The plant is native to Europe, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Azones.

However, they have been introduced in North America including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and the Falkland Islands.

The scientific name Calluna vulgaris comes from a Greek word kalluno.

The word means “to cleanse or adorn”, which refers to the plant being used for making brooms.

Vulgaris simply means common.

Did you know the Purple heather is one of the two national flowers of Norway?

Besides this, the plant is considered an icon of Scotland where it grows widely.

Common Heather Care

Size & Growth

The ling plant is native to habitats including moors, hillsides, dunes, heaths, and bogs.

When these growing conditions are replicated in other locations, the evergreen broadleaf shrub can grow up to 2’ – 3’ feet tall.

Their ground spread is mostly equivalent to the height. Branching is lush and upright, forming thick mats.

The foliage is dense and compact, making the plant excellent for ground cover.

Flowering and Fragrance

The bloom time for the showy flowers is during late summer.

In wild plants, the flowers typically sport a mauve color but white flowers are not uncommon.

The flowers are in terminals, one-sided, and have spike-like racemes.

The plant also produces a fruit which appears as capsules.

While the original mauve and white flowers of Heather are beautiful, many cultivars are chosen for unique flower and foliage color combinations.

In fact, the Royal Horticultural Society lists over 800 cultivars.

Some of the common cultivars include Cuprea, Firefly, Long White, Beoley Gold, and Boskoop.

Light & Temperature

Calluna vulgaris is hardy to USDA hardiness zones 4 to 6.

It does the best in zone 5 but tolerates warmer parts of zone 4 quite well.

It does not like high humidity and heat in areas south of the USDA zone.

As for light, the plant flowers and grows much better when it is planted in regions getting full sun.

In hot and humid summer, the plant may appreciate partial shade during the hottest hours of the day.

Watering and Feeding

Heathers have average water needs. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out as the plant prefers constant moisture.

Water the plants once or twice a week. However, be careful about overwatering.

Too much water may lead to root rot and inconsistent growth.

Once the plant is established, it won’t need frequent watering.

Fertilizing is not essential for Scottish heathers.

In fact, the plants prefer poor soils and may even be harmful to some.

If the soil you’re using is significantly poor, a low rate fertilizer fed once during the growing season may work for the acid-loving plants.

Soil & Transplanting

The plants need well-drained soil to regulate moisture and sustain enough to keep the roots cool.

If you’re using heavy soils, a raised bed or mound of soil may improve drainage.

Like azaleas and rhododendrons, heathers are acid-loving.

The ideal pH in the soil is between 4.5 and 5.5.

Use peat moss to alkaline soil to raise the acidity.

Transplanting should be done carefully as the plants have shallow root systems.

Start by digging a hole twice as wide and half as deep as the root ball.

Remove the plant from the container.

Make a few vertical cuts along the length of the root ball on the bottom.

Break up some of the roots and work in the soil.

Grooming and Maintenance

Common heathers respond well to regular pruning.

You should prune the plants in late fall to early spring underneath old flowers.

Shear the plant lightly after it blooms to encourage better flowering and lush growth.

If you don’t prune the plant annually, the growth can become leggy and straggly.

Mulch the plants after planting to allow the soil to retain moisture.

How To Propagate Ling

When propagating from seeds, sow them in a shaded part of a greenhouse in February.

Sow the seed in moist, well-drained acidic soil on the surface, just covering it.

Treat it to cold stratification for 4 to 20 weeks.

The seeds take 1 to 2 months to germinate at 68° degrees Fahrenheit (20° C).

When seedlings are large enough to handle, transfer to individual pots in the winter and grow then in the greenhouse.

Transfer them to their permanent location in late spring or early summer.

The plant can propagate with half-ripe wood cuttings, mature wood cuttings, and division.

These should be done in July/August, October/November, and spring respectively.

Scotch Heather Pest or Diseases

If you don’t provide partial shade in hot summers, heathers may be susceptible to stem and root rot.

Additionally, keep an eye out for spider mites and oyster shell scale.

More on –> Controlling Spider Mites

Is The Plant Invasive?

The plant does have a tendency to be invasive in some areas in New Zealand.

Common Heather Uses

Smaller varieties of common heathers are used as ground covers and in rock gardens.

Other shrub varieties are planted in mass on hillsides.

Also, they are often planted in borders as background plants.

Besides garden uses, the plants have various other uses such as a food source for sheep and deer and to make honey.

Formerly, the plant was used to dye wool and tan leathers.

Common heather, also called summer heather, is a beautiful cute plant that blooms generously for a long time.

Key common heather facts

Name – Calluna vulgaris
Family – Ericaceae
Type – heath plant, perennial

Height – 4 to 20 inches (10 to 50 cm)
Exposure – full sun, part sun
Soil – heath soil

Foliage – evergreen
Flowering – August to April depending on cultivars

Caring for it is easy and it is guaranteed to produce a great decorative impact!

Planting common heather

For Calluna heather, spring is the best time to plant so that it can already bloom end of summer.

If you have chosen winter heather (also called Erica heather), it is better to plant end of summer or during fall.

Water generously at the beginning and provide for maritime pine bark mulch.

  • Unravel the roots that are at the base of the plant.
  • Let the bunch sit in water for a few minutes.
  • Add heath to your garden soil to guarantee proper plant development.
  • The Erica variety tolerates clay and even chalky soil.
  • Growth is relatively slow.
  • Read more on how to plant heather plants.

Another possibility: potted common heather

Because it grows slowly, common heath is actually well suited to growing in pots.

You’ll be surprised to see that this plant can stay for years in the same old 12 inch (30 cm)-deep pot.

  • Be careful though to water regularly, since soil dries up much faster in pots, especially in summer.

Pruning and caring for heather

Common heath is such an easygoing plant that it requires almost no care.

  • Light pruning after blooming is over, without removing old growth.
  • Water in case of prolonged dry spells or heat waves.
  • Add special heath fertilizer in spring.

All there is to know about heath or heather

Common heather is a small shrub that comes in many varieties, each with its own blooming season.

  • If you alternate Calluna vulgaris and Erica heather, you’ll have flowers all year round!
  • Calluna or common heather plant flowers are grouped to form ears and bloom from summer to fall.
  • Erica plant flowers are grouped in umbels and bloom from fall to winter.

This perennial usually covers surfaces well which can be interesting, and its bushy appearance and abundant flowers will certainly make for a beautiful addition to your garden.

Even though it flowers for over 5 months every year, common heath only needs little care and adapts equally well to rocks, edges and embankments – and your garden boxes, too.

Indeed, balconies and terraces are perfect locations for this plant because growing in pots is ideal and its low maintenance requirements make it easy to care for.

Common heath is the plant that is also called summer heather, or Calluna vulgaris, whereas winter heather is the plant that bears latin name Erica.

Smart tip about heath

You can plant them together with camellia, rhododendron or azalea, so that only one spot in the garden needs to be kept acidic instead of several.

Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Common heather purple flowers by John Haslam under © CC BY 2.0

Calluna vulgaris

Heather for Sale Online UK

Heather for sale online. Buy Heather from our online shop to grow your own colourful winter garden. Also called Erica carnea, winter heath is a popular plant that will bring a splash of colour in the middle of grey winter weather. Originally from South Africa, this attractive plant has more than 600 different species. Sporting green, yellow, orange or bronze leaves, they come contrasted with white, pink and red flowers. Planted in large groups, this winter bloomer will rejuvenate each garden to create a beautiful, colourful winter carpet within 2 to 3 years. This evergreen garden plant is as well suited for the flower border as much as in a pot. It combines beautifully with other steadfast garden plants such as conifers, broom, hydrangea, rhododendron and skimmia japonica. You can buy winter heath online in our webshop.

Winter heath annual

Have you wondered if winter heath is an annual or a perennial plant? Well, winter heath is actually a perennial. This garden plant will bring glorious colour to your garden for many years, especially if you take care of it and position it in a nice spot in the garden. Also known as Erica carnea, it loves the sun, sky and ground and effortlessly brings beauty to every garden. Erica carnea can be planted all year round, with this wintergreen ground cover plant requiring little maintenance. Pruning just after it flowers will produce an abundant harvest of blooms in the following year. Cut back its foliage lightly along the top, similarly to how sheep graze upon the top of this plant where it grows wild on the moors. Remove the browning blooms during the flowering season for the most beautiful visual display. Winter heath is an asset to any garden lover who would like to add more colour in the garden or on the balcony in the cold winter months.

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