Erica (Heather family)

A large genus of useful evergreen perennials. Ericas vary in growth habit, from low spreading and ground-cover to taller more bushy plants. A wide range of flower colours are available, from white through to all shades of pink and red to mauve. With careful selection heathers can be used to provide long-lasting colour in the garden, from spring to late winter.

General height and spread 12 to 24 inches (30 to 60 cm), depending on variety, soil and growing conditions.

Uses in the garden include, sunny border plants (if soil is suitable), evergreen ground cover, heather garden or a large rock garden.

Planting and Growing Erica

Plant in a sunny position in well-drained acidic soil. Most heathers prefer acid soils but several varieties, including E. carnea, E. darleyensis, E. medditerranea and E. terminalis, will tolerate alkaline conditions.

Most varieties are fully hardy with a few exceptions, such as Erica gracilis and Erica x hyemalis (Cape heaths). Treat these as winter-flowering heathers for the greenhouse. Both require lime-free soil and regular watering. Dead head regularly and stand outside in summer.

Taking Care of Heathers

Trim back to base of flowering spikes as soon as the flowers have faded to rejuvenate plants. Top-dress with ericaceous compost. Water well in first season then water as necessary particularly in dry weather. Do not let soil dry out in summer.

Pruning Heather

Cut back after flowering by trimming off all flowering spikes.

Propagating Heather

Propagate by layering in autumn (allowing 12 months to root fully) or by taking short side-shoot cuttings in mid to late summer and root them in well drained soil in a cold frame. Do not remove the lower leaves but simply insert to about half their depth in free draining ericaceous compost.

Popular Varieties of Erica Grown in the UK

The following varieties of Erica are very popular in English gardens:

Erica carnea (herbacea)

Erica x darleyensis

Calluna vulgaris ‘Dark Beauty’

Erica arhorea alpina (tree heath)

Tall shrubby form with needle-like leaves flowers spring. Honey scented grey-white flowers early in spring. Hardy evergreen. Height: up to 6ft (2m) Spread: 3ft (1m). Requires a lime-free, moist but well-drained soil.

Erica carnea (herbacea)

Spring flowering variety with a mainly prostrate habit that makes for excellent evergreen ground cover. Most forms are hardy in the UK. Foliage is usually light green but some varieties have bronze or golden yellow leaves. Flowers appear from late autumn through to late spring, in a wide range of shades, from deep purple to red, pink and white. Best in full sun but will tolerate semi-shade. Most forms of erica carnea will tolerate lime and neutral soils.

General height and spread: up to 1 ft (30cm) by 2ft (60cm).

Erica carnea ‘Aurea’ : Lime green to pale yellow foliage. Pink flowers from mid-winter to spring.

Erica carnea ‘Foxglove’ : Yellow-green foliage. White/pink flowers late winter to early spring.

Erica carnea ‘King George’ : Very early winter flowering. Dark pink blooms. Height and spread: 10in (25cm)

Erica carnea ‘Loughrigg’ : Dark green foliage that turns bronze. Pink-purple flowers

Erica carnea ‘Sunshine Rambler’ : Bright yellow foliage. Pink flowers from winter to early spring.

Erica carnea ‘Springwood White’ (Winter heath) : Spreading habit. Prolific white flowers midwinter.

Erica ciliaris (Dorset heath)

Pale evergreen green foliage. Flowers vary in colour from white through to pink and red (July to September).
Height: 6-12 in (15 to 30cm).

Erica cinerea (scotch heather or bell heather)

Dwarf evergreen variety. Deep green leaves, masses of flowers in summer.
Height: 6-12 in (15 to 30cm).

Erica x darleyensis (Darley dale heath)

Erica x darleyensis ‘White Perfection’
Bright green foliage with large pure white flowers.
Height: 16in (40cm), Spread: 2ft 6in (75cm)

Erica erigena ‘Brightness’

Erica mediterranea

Bushy evergreen variety. Small evergreen leaves covered with white, pink or deep purple flowers from late winter to spring. Height 2 to 8 ft depending
on variety. Lime tolerant. Shelter from cold winds.

Erica terminalis (Tree heather)

Tall bushy variety, flowers late summer. Bright green leaves fading to dark green
Pink flowers, from July to December. Height 3-6 ft. Will tolerate lime. Best in an open, sunny position.

Erica tetralix (cross-leaved heath)

Evergreen variety with white to crimson flowers from June to October. Height 9-12 in. Requires lime-free soil.

Erica vagans (Cornish heath)

Vigorous evergreen variety. Very hardy. Produces pink bell-shaped flowers from late summer to autumn. Height: 2ft 6in (75cm) Spread: 3ft (1m). Tolerates mildly alkaline soils.

Calluna vulgaris

Woody evergreen variety. Flowers from July to October. Good range of flower colours available.
Height 10-14 in (25 to 35cm). Lime free soils. Full sun or partial shade.

How to grow: Erica

Chance crosses are a great talent of ericas, no more so than in the Erica x darleyensis cultivars, which start coming into flower about now. There is no better place to see them than in the Heather Garden of the Valley Gardens in Windsor Great Park. ‘Jack H. Brummage’ has yellow foliage and pink flowers, ‘Jenny Porter’ is a pale purple-rose, ‘George Rendall’ is deep pink, as is ‘Furzey’.

The flower buds of ‘Ghost Hill’ are pale green, opening to rose-pink and becoming almost red, ‘Silberschmelze’ is silvery white, while ‘White perfection’ is exactly that. E. carnea ‘Eileen Porter’, which is in flower now, is a wonderful carmine.

Growing tips

  • Ericas cannot tolerate soil at the extremes of the alkaline and acid scales. Those on either side of neutral (7) will be fine.
  • Prepare the planting site with the right kind of organic material: for example, well-composted bark or coir, or a mixture of the two. Or use rotted farmyard manure or compost.
  • Buy plants which are compact with foliage that looks healthy. Make sure they are properly labled.
  • Erica carnea plants can be placed up to two feet apart. This will give them room to develop.
  • In spring feed heathers with a cocktail of dried seaweed, fish, bone and blood meal.
  • The most important maintenance is clipping plants each year after flowering.

Where to buy

Burncoose & South Down Nurseries, Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ (01209 860316)

Macpennys Nurseries, 154, Burley Road, Bransgore, Christ Church, Dorset BH23 8DB (01425 672348)

Choice Landscapes, Priory Farm, 101 Salts Road, West Walton, Wisbech PE14 7EF (01945 585051)

Naked Cross Nurseries, Waterloo Road, Corfe Mullen, Wimborne, Dorset BH21 3SR (01202 693259)

The Heather Society, Denbeigh, All Saints Road, Creeting St Mary, Suffolk IP6 8PJ, sells plants to members. Membership costs £10 a year.

Good companions

Erica carnea will tolerate alkaline soil, despite the belief that all these plants need acid soil, and is also tolerant of salt-laden winds, which makes it valuable for seaside gardens.

In the wild, ericas invariably grow with gorse (Ulex europaeus), but this is not a good plant to bring into the garden as it self-seeds very freely, although the double form, U. europaeus ‘Flore Pleno’, is beautiful and sweetly scented.

There is a dwarf form, U. minor, growing to about 3ft tall, or the so-called Spanish gorse (Genista hispanica), which can be kept bun-shaped with clipping.

Ericas are close relatives and happy bed-mates with ling (Calluna vulgaris), once known as Erica vulgaris, which flowers from late summer into November.

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) and the sweetly scented Christmas box (Sarcococca hookeriana) are also perfect companions for heaths and heathers.

All about ericas

Ericas are beautiful fynbos plants that thrive in Western Cape gardens but can also be grown in inland gardens if you choose the right varieties. There are over 700 species of ericas, of which at least 50 are ideal for planting in the garden.

If you are a walker or a climber in the mountains of the Cape you cannot help but be intrigued by the indigenous ericas growing in abundance there. Mostly small, but sometimes large, woody shrubs, they are best recognised by their extraordinary flowers that are crafted so perfectly that they look almost artificial. Shaped like miniature bells, their curved or puffed up tubes come in all colours except blue. The leaves are tiny and needle-like and arranged in small tufts.

Successful growing

When choosing a site to plant ericas, keep in mind that they grow naturally in well-drained positions, although there are some exceptions which have water passing by their roots most of the time. To ensure good drainage in heavier soil, grow them in a rockery or place a layer of builder’s rubble half a metre under the soil. They also require an acid soil with a pH ranging from 4 to 5.5. The soil mix should be half good soil and half old compost. If you happen to have some Table Mountain sandstone present in your garden you have the ideal growing medium for the majority of ericas. Apart from good drainage, ericas thrive in a spot which receives sunlight and enjoy the wind through their leaves.

The shape, appearance or kind of erica will influence its best use in the garden. Those that are more difficult to grow are better grown in pots where they can be closely monitored. On an airy, sunny patio and properly watered, they will do exceptionally well. Many ericas start flowering at an early age and are thus perfect for containers. The best potting soil is acidic, sandy, and well-drained. Mix equal parts of pine needles, bark, river sand and a small amount of loam, and feed plants with a fish emulsion. Once you have planted your erica be careful not to disturb the soil around the plant as it has a fibrous root system and, like many of the fynbos family, hates having its roots disturbed.


Careful watering is half the secret of successful erica cultivation. Ericas growing in the wild are often found at high altitudes where the south-east winds bring clouds that provide moisture in summer and rain in winter. In the winter rainfall areas of the country, water ericas during the summer if you want them to remain healthy. In the summer rainfall regions, make sure they are well watered during the dry winter months.

Plant combinations

In their natural environment, ericas are often found in close company with restios such as Elegia spp., Chondropetalum spp. and Thamnochortus spp. Those of us who prefer naturalistic plantings will enjoy them with these companions and maybe some proteas, helichrysums, agathosmas and a coleonema or three. The species that have smaller flowers are striking in mass displays, such as berry heath (E. baccans), E. quadrangularis and E. peziza. Ericas also look great in a rockery, as in nature some species have learnt to live in close proximity with rocks, sending their roots deep underneath them to find water and coolth.

-Erica versicolor

Choose an erica for your garden

The following Erica species are suitable for both summer and winter rainfall gardens:


Spring- and summer-flowering:


Albertinia heath (E. bauera), E. oatesii, mealie heath (E. patersonia), E. sitiens, E. versicolor.

Winter-and spring-flowering:

Ker-ker (E. sparsa).


E. densifolia, E. hirtiflora, nine-pin heath (E. mammosa), E. sitiens, wax heath (E. ventricosa).

-Erica bauera

-Erica blenna


  • Keep the soil around ericas mulched with pine needles, chips or stones to conserve moisture and exclude weeds.
  • Ericas respond well to light, regular pruning from a young stage which will increase branching and flower production. Prune after flowering to avoid loss of flowering buds.
  • Feed before flowering with a slow release 3:1:5 fertiliser or a good organic fertiliser.
  • Ericas are not suitable for humid, subtropical gardens.
  • Ericas grow best if planted close together with other fynbos plants to form dense stands that cover the ground.
  • Don’t be afraid to pick your erica flowers as they last a long time in a vase and are thus popular cut flowers both as ‘fillers’ and ‘specimens’.

Latest varieties

  • E. verticillata – magenta. Thought to be extinct in the wild, rediscovered and thriving.
  • E. nana x E. patersonia ‘Gengold’ – golden yellow. Small plants, perfect in pots.
  • Erica ‘Candy’ protata x – a floriferous dusky pink.

All About Heathers

What do you need to know about planting and growing heather in your garden?

Heathers are classified as low growing evergreen shrubs. Some are miniature forms growing only a few centimetres in height whilst others can attain 3-4 metres in the UK. This site can help you select the right type for your garden.

The soil type will govern the types of heather you can successfully grow and as a general and simple rule the Winter or Spring flowering varieties will grow on acid or slightly alkaline (chalky) soils whereas the Summer flowering cultivars require a lime (chalk) free acidic soil.

Winter/Spring flowering heathers are the families labelled as Erica carnea, Erica x darleyensis and Erica erigena. These types cope well with most soil types.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Jana’

Erica tetralix ‘Pink Star’

Erica mackayana ‘Shining Light’

The Calluna vulgaris family, flowering in the Summer and late Autumn require an acid soil and a lighter soil structure whereby the plants can get their fine roots to penetrate the soil easily.

Some of the other Summer flowering heather requiring the same conditions are Erica cinerea, Erica tetralix, Erica x williamsii, Erica ciliaris, Erica x watsonii, Erica x stuartii, Erica mackaiana and Daboecia.

Erica vagans ‘Summertime’

Erica x darleyensis ‘Phoebe’

Erica vagans, a Summer flowering heather will tolerate heavier soils and is generally described as moderately lime tolerant.

Tree or shrub heathers are usually available in early Spring and display their long spikes of white to rich purple flowers on green or gold foliage.

Erica ciliaris

Erica carnea

Erica cinerea

How to get the best from your heather

Only a little maintenance is required to keep heather plants but the ‘little’ is quite essential to get the best results from them.


The smaller purchased heather plants are normally planted in the top few centimetres of soil and if planted in the Spring this is the soil layer that dries out very quickly in hot weather, therefore additional watering or irrigation is necessary especially in the Summer after planting. The soil can be modified by the addition of material to allow the fine roots of the heather to penetrate the soil particles easily, being of a fine texture they cannot batter their way through heavy clays soils without some help! Essentially the soil type may need to be improved in texture to aid the heather.

If in doubt about your soil type you can purchase a simple pH test kit for a little money from most garden centres but don’t forget that they look well in tubs or planters where they can be planted in an ericaceous compost.

Heavier, denser soils may need a material added to make them more friable or open in texture whilst the sandy soils would benefit from an addition of a loamy material to assist in retaining moisture and nutrients. Useful materials are bark, compost, coarse sand or grit. Whilst it is appreciated that there is a movement against the use of peat, if it has been sustainably sourced it remains an excellent material to improve the planting environment for the benefit of heather and its associated insect life.

Calculate that for each square yard/metre you will need 8/9 9cm size or 4/5 1.0 litre heather plants.


To put it very simply give the heather plants a light trim after flowering to the base of the flowering spike. This will keep them neat and bushy. In general if plants are left unpruned for a number of years they cannot be successfully cut back hard as this will leave bare woody areas. Only trim as far back as there are leaves/green foliage visible.


It is often felt that as heather grows wild on upland heathland sites that additional feeding is unnecessary. However they will perform well given a light feed once or twice during the first half of the year. This can be a light broadcast of a general purpose fertiliser over the plants and is a simple and easy method of application. A mulch of bark or even lawn mower clippings will help to retain moisture and reduce weed growth.

Where to grow them?

Heather will grow well in full sun or light shade. Whilst it will grow if planted in the shade the golden or foliage forms will lose their foliage colour and flowering will be reduced. Ideally chose a moist but free draining site and if planting on a bank remember that these sites dry out quickly. Avoid planting under trees or in wet boggy areas.

Heathers have developed a ‘niche’ these days for planting in containers and perform well as long as they are kept moist and not allowed to dry out. In the garden they can either be planted in odd numbered groups (the larger and bolder the better) or mixed as single plants to give a more natural display.

Heathers, heaths and related genera

Few plants have more impact on the landscape of Scotland than heather: it carpets much of the high moorland and coastal slopes of the country. Scotland has three native heathers. The commonest is Calluna vulgaris (ling), which turns the hills purple in late summer, but you will also find Erica cinerea (bell heather) in drier sites, and the pink E. tetralix, which likes boggy conditions.

A vast range of heather varieties is now available, many of which have striking coloured foliage, and there are some that flower almost any month of the year.

Heathers belong to the family Ericaceae (which includes rhododendrons and azaleas) and share a liking for acid or peaty soil. Erica carnea and E. x darleyensis cultivars will grow in neutral or alkaline soil.

Heathers have traditionally been grown in heather beds with several varieties planted together, so as to contrast the flower and foliage colours. They can also be used in mixed borders and in troughs and containers.

Heathers should be grown in full sun and, if possible, facing south. They are very wind tolerant but salt spray can damage the golden-leaved varieties. Plant in groups of three to five of each cultivar in a large bed, or singly in a small space. The Heather Society recommend using five plants per square metre in order to carpet the ground completely.

The key to good-looking heathers is to shear them after flowering for the spring and summer varieties, cutting back to below the flowering heads. The autumn-flowering ones will need only an occasional tidy-up in spring.

Erica carnea

Hardiness H4-5 (15-25 x 40-50cm)
 Purplish-pink or white flowers in late winter (as early as December) and early spring.
 Tough, excellent for early season colour.
 Flowers through snow and hard frosts.
 Tolerant of some shade and salt spray.
 Prune after flowering to keep it compact.

Erica cinerea (Bell heather)

 Hardiness H4-5 Size 30-60 x 50-80cm
 Large group of summer-flowering heathers.
 Flowers June-September.
 Compact with dark green leaves.
 Pink, white or purple flowers.
 Acid soil in sun.
 Plant 5 per m2 for a carpet.

Calluna vulgaris (Ling)

Hardiness H4-5 Height 15-50cm.
 The heather of Scotland’s moorland.
 Many forms: purple, pink, reddish & white.
 Flowering in late summer & autumn.
 Plant 5 per m2 for a carpet.
 Prune after flowering.
 Acid soil in sun.

Growing Heath and Heather for Year Round Color

Obviously the heather garden shown above is much more than most people have room for, but it does give one some ideas of the color combinations that can be achieved if certain cultivars are selected. To give you a list of varieties that you can choose for color, either foliage or flower, every month of the year, I will start with January.

Erica x darleyensis ‘Margaret Porter’

This heath will be in full bloom in January, and will continue into early spring. The lilac flowers are big and fluffy and really stand out. Another bonus is the bright creamy tips in mid spring after flowering has completed.

Erica ‘Margaret Porter’

Erica x darleyensis ‘Jack H. Brummage

This cultivar is grown for its year-round bright yellow foliage. It is especially useful to contrast against dark green plants, brightening up dark areas in the landscape. The flowers are less noticed in the winter months.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Wickwar Flame’

Really Orange in mid-winter, this heather looks great against blue conifers or other dark colored foliage. Almost as richly colored as flowers, the foliage glows for months. Lavender flowers do appear in August.

For March and April, you may want to have colorful flowers and foliage, as seen on these two heaths. Erica carnea ‘King George’ livens up the late winter garden with soft pink flowers on a low and spreading mounder. Erica carnea ‘Ann Sparks’, on the other hand, has rich red-orange foliage to add contrast. The two together are a wonderful combination.

Erica carnea ‘Porter’s Red’

Rich dark pink flowers cover this late winter blooming heath. Plant in mass for a great effect. Combines well with other winter blooming heath.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Pat’s Gold’

This flat ground-hugger heather will have orange highlights on bright gold foliage. As spring approaches the orange tips will go back to gold, but this striking coloration lasts all winter. The pink flowers come out in August.

May and June will bring the brightly colored spring tips of certain Erica and Calluna, while also starting the long blooming season of the Daboecia. The varieties with the bright spring tips have two displays, one in spring and the other in summer. The Daboecia will bloom from May until November.

Daboecia cantibrica ‘Polofolia’

Large purple flowers cover this plant from mid spring until late fall. These plants grow larger than most of the Calluna or Erica, but will stay dense and have very dark shiny green leaves. By dead heading the spent flowers in early summer, you will receive another full bloom in late fall.

Daboecia cantibrica ‘Arielle’

Rich red flowers decorate this Daboecia all spring and into summer. Dark green foliage adds to its value, with little care required other than an occasional pruning to shape. Somewhat drought tolerant.

July and August is the beginning of the heath and heather flower show. All of the Calluna vulgaris will start in July and go through August, some earlier, some later. The flowers range from pink to lavender, mauve and crimson, amethyst and white. Most will be mounded cushions of color. Several Erica varieties will be blooming now as well. Most Erica cinerea with purple and pink flowers make their entrance in July and August. The Erica vagens are also very showy with their ‘bottle brush’ type flowers, covering the entire plant to the exclusion of the foliage. Needless to say, this is the peak of the heath and heather show, so plant in areas you want to be most visible this time of year.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Dark Beauty’

Semi-double deep cerise flowers cover this compact heather from August through October. The flowers deepen to a ruby as the flowering time goes on. It has nice dark green foliage. Found as a sport on C.v.’Darkness’. Certainly one of the best cultivars to be introduced in recent times, gaining a Gold Medal in Boskoop, Holland in 1990. Also a winner of the Award of Garden Merit trophy.

Erica cinerea ‘Lime Soda’

Bright lime green foliage is attractive all year long, but especially in summer into fall when the soft lavender flowers cover the plant. We think this will become more popular as it is more widely grown. Winner of the Award of Garden Merit trophy. Choice!

Calluna vulgaris ‘White Lawn’

Growing flat on the ground, here is the heather you have been looking for! The clear green foliage creeps along the ground, making a nice lawn that covers itself with white flowers from August through September. A very distinctive plant and well worth finding a spot in your garden or rockery. Distinctive. Winner of the Award of Garden Merit trophy.

Erica cinerea ‘P.S. Patrick’

Excellent purple flowers cover this fine foliage Erica from summer into the fall. The foliage is a rich dark green on a plant with an upright habit. Recommended. Found in Dorset by P.S. Patrick when an employee of Maxwell & Beale. He later became an author of one of the standard textbooks on heathers.

Erica cinerea ‘Golden Drop’

A fine textured heath that has rich yellow-orange foliage with darker reddish-orange tips most of the year. In the summer the purple flowers add yet more color. Looks stunning when planted near blue or dark green foliage plants.

Erica vagens ‘Birch Glow’

Here is an excellent mounding heath that will take harsher environments than most. The plant will make a tight mound 24″-30″ across and 8″-10″ tall over time. The rose-pink flowers completely cover the plant in the summer months of July through September, and are like little ‘bottle brushes’. Very showy. In the winter, the foliage develops reddish tips that are very distinctive.

September and October will see less flowers, although there are still some Calluna varieties and a few Ericas that will extend the color into these months.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Roswitha’

This bud-bloomer, which has no real petals or stamins, flowers for a very long time…September through January. The flower buds are a deep lilac red rose color. The foliage is a dark green and the plant habit is broad and upright.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Kinlochruel’

Wonderful pure white, double flowers brighten up the garden from August through October on this excellent performing heather. The foliage is a bright green color most of the year, but turns bronze in winter, adding to the interest. Spectacular plant, certainly one the best widely available double whites. Found by Brig. E. J. Montgomery at Kinlochruel, Colintraine, Argyll, Scotland as a sport on ‘County Wicklow’. Winner of the Award of Garden Merit trophy.

Erica x griffithsii ‘Valerie Griffiths’

Really bright lemon-yellow foliage is why this heath is grown. The pale pink flowers add some color in late summer, but with the intensity of the foliage, it becomes one of the most noticed plants in the gardens. It is sheared to keep the nice mounded shape, and is combined with plants of contrasting foliage like in this photo, near Berberis thunbergii ‘Helmond Pillar’. Colorful all year round, but especially nice in September and October.

Calluna vulgaris ‘Goldsworth Crimson’

Long racemes of crimson flowers cover this upright-spreading heather from September through November. It has very dark green foliage. Needs good shearing after the bloom. Named after the nursery which introduced it.

Erica x darleyensis ‘Darleydale’

Erica x darleyensis ‘Darley Dale’, also know as ‘Mediterannean Pink’, makes a nice low shrub that blooms in late fall and into winter. Typically in bloom around the Christmas holidays in mild climates makes ‘Darley Dale’ a real favorite. Add this plant to your garden for color when little else is in bloom.

Erica x darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Rote’

‘Rote’ meaning red in German, this excellent heath will bloom from October all the way until March. The flowers are a dark pink, but in the heather circles…pretty close to red. The foliage on this variety is a dark-green and will make a compact mound.

Erica erigena ‘Irish Dusk’

Salmon buds opening to clear rose pink flowers, November-May, with dark gray green foliage. Neat compact habit 24″ tall x 20″ wide. Our favorite winter bloomer. One of the larger growing heaths.

8 year old plants in the garden below

Calluna vulgaris ‘Old Gold’

Rich reddish gold foliage is spectacular in November and December. Really screaming orange would be the best description. Wow! This one is so great as a contrast plant against plants with darker foliage colors.

The List:

January – February


Margaret Porter

Wickwar Flame

Jack H. Brummage

March – April

Ann Sparks

King George

Porter’s Red

Pat’s Gold

May – June

Irish Orange

Spring Torch

Irish Lemon

Easter Bonfire



July – August

Dark Beauty

Lime Soda

White Lawn

P.S. Patrick

Golden Drop

Birch Glow

September – October



Valerie Griffiths

November – December


Kramer’s Rote

Irish Dusk

Old Gold

Scottish Heather – Versatile & Beautiful

Scottish heather is perfectly suited to the wild and rugged hills of Scotland.

‘The most common type of heather in Scotland is ‘Ling’ heather which is hardy and fast growing, and loves wet soil.

With all the rain we get north of the border it’s one very happy little plant!

Heather grows freely and abundantly spreading it’s glorious purple hues across around five million acres of Scottish moorland, glens and hills.

Perhaps it’s because it was (and still is) so readily available that the Scots have found so many practical uses for one of their national flowers.

Origins of the word ‘Heather’

The name ‘Heather’ may come from the old Scottish word ‘haeddre’ which is seen as far back as the 14th Century.

It may also have been called ‘heddir’ or ‘hathar’ at different periods of time.

Scottish Heather is also sometimes known as ‘Ling Heather’, referring to the old Norse word ‘Lyng’ which meant ‘light in weight’.

Click on these links to jump to….

  • About Heather
  • It’s Myths & Legends
  • Why it’s considered lucky
  • History & traditional uses
  • Two popular heather products

About Scottish Heather

The color of wild Scottish heather usually ranges from lilac to purple.

You can also find white heather growing wild but it’s much less common – perhaps that’s one of the reasons it’s thought to be lucky.

Other species can be found in a variety of colors, from gold or copper, to red and even silver-grey.

Heather usually blooms twice a year in Scotland, in early summer and then during the late summer and early fall (Autumn).

Although it varies from year to year depending on weather, the best time to see the full beauty of Heather in Scotland is often between late July and early September. Yep, August is THE month!

If you’re visiting Scotland in the summertime, it’s a sight you don’t want to miss!

Heather – Legends & Myths

Myths and magic are so tightly woven into Scotland’s history that it’s sometimes impossible to separate reality from legend.

Although in lots of ways we Scots are a down-to-earth race, we’re also surprisingly sentimental, emotional and superstitious.

It’s just one of the things that makes our country so endlessly fascinating!

Just like any other Scottish symbol, the humble heather plant has it’s fair share of legends attached to it.

We’re going to share two of the most popular ones with you.

Both of these stories have their origins in the very early days of Scottish history and we hope you’ll be as intrigued by them as we are. Enjoy.

The Last Pictish King & Heather Ale:

One of the most well-known legends is centered around a confrontation between Viking raiders and the last surviving Pictish King.

Some accounts put it during the 4th Century AD, but as the Vikings didn’t actually appear on Scottish soil until the end of the 8th Century, this is unlikely…. although of course, it’s a legend, so there’s a bit of ‘wiggle room’ here!

After their army is defeated, the Pictish King and his son find themselves cornered on a cliff-top, where the Viking chief tortures them in an attempt to obtain the secret recipe for Heather Ale.

The King of the Picts is quick witted, but doubts that his son is strong enough to withstand the torture without giving up the recipe.

So he makes a deal with the Viking Chief, saying that if his son is spared the torture and killed quickly, he himself will reveal the secret.

The young prince is then thrown off the cliff and into the sea where he drowns quickly.

BUT, the Pictish King doesn’t uphold his end of the arrangement, and although it costs him his life he wins the battle and the recipe is safe.

In some variations of the tale the brave King takes the Viking over the edge of the cliff with him.

Why White Heather Is Lucky For Brides

Wild Scottish Heather is most often some shade of purple, with white heather being much more rare.

Legend has it that in the 3rd Century AD, Malvina (daughter of the legendary Scottish poet, Ossian), was betrothed (engaged to be married) to a Celtic warrior named Oscar.

Tragically (but not unexpectedly!), Oscar died in battle, and when Malvina heard the news she was heartbroken. The messenger who delivered the bad news, also delivered a spray of purple heather that Oscar had sent as a final token of his undying love for her.

It’s said that when Malvinas’ tears fell onto the flowers in her hand, they immediately turned white, and this magical occurrence prompted her to say

‘although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it.’

Even today, white Heather is considered to be lucky, especially for brides, and adding a spray of it to your bouquet, on table decorations and so on is popular.

If you have Scottish roots, have a Scottish-themed wedding coming up, or just want to add a touch of good luck to your ceremony, here are a selection of gorgeous silk buttonholes, corsages and wedding bouquets for you to take a look at:

The Luckiest Plant On Earth?

But it’s not only brides who believe that white Scottish Heather is a symbol of good luck.

As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish people are big on superstition, good (and bad) ‘omens’, legends, luck and so forth, and white heather is like a four-leaf clover to us.

In 1884 even Queen Victoria commented on this character trait during a visit to the Scottish Highlands. Describing an incident which involved one of her personal servants, she said …..

‘… he espied a piece of white heather, and jumped off to pick it. No Hihglander would pass by it without picking it, for it was considered to bring good luck.’

Other myths surrounding the magical properties of white Scottish Heather include:

  • Believed to grow only on ground where blood has not been shed in battle.
  • Also, more enchantingly, that it grows over the final resting place of Faeries.
  • White heather is closely associated with battles and conflict, and is said to bring good luck to whoever wears it.
  • The Chiefs of the Clan MacDonald are said to have attached a spray of wild Scottish heather to their spears.
  • It’s also been linked to the MacAlister, MacIntyre, Ranald, Farquharson, MacPherson and Shaw clans, often being used as a clan symbol in the days before more sophisticated heraldic badges existed.
  • Victorious after a 1544 battle, the Clan Ranald believed that the white heather they had worn was the reason for their success.
  • Around 200 years later, Ewan of Cluny (Chief of the Clan MacPherson), was forced to flee and hide after the Battle of Culloden.

Cluny evaded capture at one point, when those searching for him didn’t notice him sleeping in a patch of white Heather, reinforcing the belief that it was lucky.

With such a rich and varied history, it’s no wonder Scottish Heather is one of the most enduring and recognizable symbols of Scotland.

In our opinion, the reputation is well deserved, don’t you?

History & Traditional Uses

Heather has been plentiful in Scotland for as long as it’s history has been written (and probably before that too).

The Druids (understood to be an ancient order of Celtic priests) considered it a sacred plant.

Even today some people consider it to have almost supernatural properties, sort of a ‘charm’, which is believed to offer protection from harm (especially rape or violent attack).

On a more mundane level it’s used in aromatherapy to relieve a host of different problems.

Over thousands of years, the inventive, practical and resourceful Scots have found a whole host of uses for this natural bounty:


Especially on Scotland’s islands, heather played a major role in building construction. It was used in walls, thatched roofs, ropes, pegs and more. It also appeared in the thatched roofs of mainland houses.

Interesting Tid-Bit!

The virtues of a mattress made from Scottish heather were described by King James VI’s tutor, George Buchanan like this:

‘…… so pleasant, that it may vie in softness with the finest down, while in salubrity it far exceeds it…. and restores strength to fatigued nerves, so that those who lie down languid and weary in the evening, arise in the morning vigorous and sprightly.’

Mattresses & Beds

Since ancient times (going back thousands of years before Christ was born) dried Scottish heather was used as a sort of fragrant and bouncy mattress. Evidence of this has been found in a 4000 year old village on the island of Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

Historically, heather beds were considered to be just as comfortable as feather beds because the dried stalks and flowers are so light and soft.
A bed made from heather had the added extra of original aromatherapy, and the fragrant flower heads were usually placed towards the top of the mattress where the sleeper’s head would lie.

Household Tools

Heather stems are tough, strong and resilient (like the Scottish people), and were used in making a whole variety of implements including brooms, farming tools such as hoes or rakes and ropes.

To dye cloth – the beautiful color of highland heather was perfect for dying roughspun cloth and wool. Depending on the type of heather used (and what it was combined with) it could produce muted yellow, gold, bronze, gray, green and purple colors.
Even today ‘heather’ is a popular color in traditional Scottish clothing – and of course it features heavily in many tartans.

As Medicine

Heather was believed to have some amazing medicinal properties, and was used by ancient Scots to treat all sorts of conditions and ailments.

These included nervousness and anxiety, coughs, consumption (now known as TB), digestive issues, poisoning, blindness, arthritis, rheumatism and more.

It was made into a wide variety of different drinks, potions, ointments and salves.

Today Heather is still used effectively in aromatherapy products to treat digestive upset, skin problems, coughs and insomnia. Also as an internal cleanser and detoxifier, due to it’s slightly diuretic properties.

And last, but not least, heather is used to create the most deliciously scented soaps, candles, perfumes and more…. each can whisk you away to a land of clean air, sparkling water and scudding clouds, where the sharp scent of pine mixes with gentle gentle scent of highland heather.

Mmmm…. wonderful 🙂

Want to grow your very own patch of heather. These Scottish Heather Seeds (Calluna Vulgaris) let you do just that!

Two Popular Scottish Heather-Infused Goodies

So, as you now know, heather appears in so many aspects of Scottish life (both historically and still today) that it’s not surprising that this humble little plant is so well-known worldwide.

Before we finish up here, let’s take a look at two of the most famous heather-based products:

Heather Ale

The brewing of Scotland’s Heather Ale goes back thousands of years, and is thought to be one of the oldest types of ale in the world.

Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend

The first few lines of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem go like this…….

‘From the bonny bells of heather,
They brew a drink Langsyn
Was sweeter far than honey
Was stronger far than wine.’

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?

On the tiny Isle of Rum, off the west coast of Scotland, 3000 year old shards of pottery have been found which contain traces of a fermented drink made from Heather!

It’s believed that the Picts developed a recipe for Ale that relied entirely on the Heather plant for its’ sweetness and fermentation.

It was valued so highly that the recipe was kept a secret, with only the King and his first-born son knowing what went into it.

This ‘secret potion’ was then be passed on down through the generations.

This brew was immortalized in the poem entitled ‘HEATHER ALE : A Galloway Legend’ by Robert Louis Stevenson (see box on the right)

It tells, in verse, the legend of the Pictish King who sacrificed both his life, and that of his son, to protect the secret recipe.

All I can say is – that must have been some ale!

Brewing your own Heather Ale

If you’re interested in learning more about brewing heather ale yourself, here are a couple of resources that might point you in the right direction:

  • Beer and Wine Journal, Brewing with Heather
  • Midwest Supplies, Heather Ale
  • American Homebrewers Association Forum, Heather Ale

Heather Honey

Bees work for months to collect enough pollen to produce this beautiful thick, golden Scottish Heather Honey with the unique and delicate taste of Scottish heather.

As well as being delicious, heather honey is rich in minerals and was traditionally used in medicinal drinks and potions.

Today you can get mouth-watering Scottish heather honey, honey-jam and honey-marmalade, as well as tea with the same wonderful flavor.


The Scottish Heather Book is dedicated to the history and character of our special Scottish Heather.

It explores the legends behind the flower and giving an interesting and in-depth look at how this humble plant came to be such a well-known part of Scotland’s symbolism.

It’s easy-to-read style, plus poetry and literary excerpts from historically famous Scots, make this book worth adding to your collection.

For a whole host of great products check out

Scottish Heather Gifts & Goodies

There’s something for everyone!

Home › Scottish Symbols & Emblems › Scottish Heather

Ling (White Heather)

Native to Britain, Europe and parts of North America no plant apart from the thistle is more associated with the romance of Scotland than heather. For generations it has featured in our literature, poetry, music and song. Yet few realise that many of the vast expanses of heather that dominate our landscape are the result of deforestation, sheep and the establishment of grouse moors.

Martin Martin (died 1719) a Gaelic factor from Skye famed for his book ‘A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland’ 1703 discussed the health-restoring qualities of ling when it was used as a mattress.

Osgood Mackenzie (1842-1922) the founder of the famous west coast subtropical garden at Inverwewe also talks about its use in domestic life in his book ‘A Hundred Years in the Highlands’ (1921) which also explains the establishment of the garden. Evidence exists that heather has been used in brewing in Scotland since 2000 BC and today it is still produced in Argyll and marketed as Fraoch the Gaelic word for the plant.

This brew was celebrated by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) in his poem:

Heather Ale
From the bonny bells of heather,
They brewed a drink lang syne
Was sweeter than honey
Was stronger than wine.

Bee keepers still take their bees to the heather in the flowering season as the honey produced is extremely sweet with a distinctive taste favoured by many around the world. The foliage and flowers were used to prepare a wide range of coloured dyes ranging from yellow through green to orange and brown. It was also used medicinally. The dried stems are made into besoms and brushes; this was once an important cottage industry in many rural areas. The stems were also bundled and bonded to make floor tiles, similar to the process used to make jewellery today.

White heather is the plant badge of the Clan McPherson who have a clan seat on land granted by Robert the Bruce near Badenoch. The clan was a strong supporter of the crown during the Jacobite uprising.

The heather flower’s meaning comes from its genus name, Calluna, which stems from the Greek word kalluno, and means to cleanse or adorn. This is appropriate, as heather plants were once used for making brooms.

Heather flowers commonly grow in northern and western Europe, Turkey, and Morocco, and have been naturalized in parts of North America. It is especially popular in Scotland. The name heather is believed to come from the Scottish word haeddre, which was used to describe a heathland, or a shrubland habitat.

According to a Scottish legend, Malvina, daughter of a Celtic bard, was engaged to a warrior named Oscar. Oscar was killed in battle, and the messenger that delivered the news gave her heather as a token of Oscar’s love. As her tears fell on the heather, it turned white. Though she was sad, she wished happiness on others and hoped that anyone who found white heather would have good luck.

Heather Flower Meanings

Heather flowers commonly mean good luck, admiration, and protection.

  • Queen Victoria popularized the the meaning of heather as good luck in England because of her appreciation for Scottish lore and traditions. Victorians may also have associated heather with good luck because of its scarcity at the time, much like we consider four-leaf clovers good luck.
  • In the sixteenth century, Clan Ranald, a Scottish clan, believed that they won a battle because they wore white heather in their bonnets, which gave them both luck and protection.
  • In Scotland, it is common to include a sprig of white heather in a bride’s bouquet for good luck.

Heather Flower Symbolism and Colors

Heather flowers typically grow in shades of white, purple, and pink.

  • White heather symbolizes protection, good luck, or wishes coming true.
  • Purple heather symbolizes admiration and solitude.

Heather Flower Cultural Significance

Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish writer and poet, write a poem entitled Heather Ale. This poem tells the tale of vikings and the Pictish King. According to the poem, the vikings defeated the Picts army and cornered the king and his son on a cliff in an attempt to gain the recipe for Heather Ale. However, the king would rather be thrown off the cliff than give up the recipe. He loses the battle, but takes the secret recipe to his grave.

This poem depicts not only the importance of heather to Scotland, but how it grew beautifully and bountifully in many areas.

There stood the son and father,

And they looked high and low;

The heather was red around them,

The sea rumbled below.

Heather Flower Facts

  • Heathers are evergreen shrubs.
  • They typically bloom from July to September.
  • Each small heather flower can have up to thirty seeds.
  • Heathers do best in full sun with acidic, well-draining soil.

Heather Flower Uses

There are records dating back to the seventh century of heather’s healing properties. In the sixteenth century, German doctor Paulus Aegineta noted that the flowers, leaves, and stems healed various types of sores, both internal and external. Nicolas Alexandre, a Benedictine monk, also noted that heather tea could dissolve kidney stones. Today, heather is still used by some to aid in urinary tract and digestive conditions, among other things.

Resources | | | | | Scottish Pride by Heather Duncan

Image Source

Middle image, top right CC Image courtesy of retemirabile on Flickr

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