Heathers are low-growing, evergreen shrubs, typically found on heathland and moorland. There are several different types, which flower at different times of the year in a variety of colours, including white, pink, purple and red. All thrive in acid soils although some are more tolerant of neutral to alkaline soils.
Winter- and spring-flowering heathers provide an important early source of food for bees.
Heathers comprise three closely related genera – Calluna, Erica and Daboecia. To tell them apart you can look at their leaves: Calluna has small, scale-like leaves, Erica has needle-like leaves and Daboecia has small, oval to lance-shaped foliage.
Calluna heathers flower in summer and autumn. These acid-loving species need a light, sandy but nutrient-rich soil, with a pH of 6.5 or less.
Erica heathers typically flower in winter and spring (there are some summer-flowering species). They are more tolerant of neutral to alkaline soils and will grow well in soils with a pH of 7 or higher, as long as the soil has been enriched with organic matter.
Daboecia heathers flower in spring, summer or autumn (depending on the species) and need a sandy, acid soil to thrive.
How to grow heather plant
For the best results, grow heather in acidic, free-draining soil in full sun.
Where to grow heather
All heathers thrive in acid soil, in full sun to partial shade, although winter- and spring-flowering Erica carnea and Erica × darleyensis, and summer-flowering Erica vagans will tolerate neutral to alkaline soil (with a pH of 7 or more), especially if the soil has been enriched with well-rotted organic matter such as manure or compost.
They work well in container displays and at the front of a border, as well as rock gardens.
How to plant heather
Plant heather at the same depth it was growing its previous pot, gently firm the soil around the plant and water well, ideally with rainwater. It’s a good idea to add a mulch of bark chippings or leaf mould to suppress weeds and keep the soil acidic.
How to care for heather
Heather plants need very little care. Pot-grown heathers will need feeding during the growing season – choose a fertiliser formulated for ericaceous plants and follow the instructions on the bottle or packet.
Mulch annually to keep soil nutrient levels high, maintain the soil pH and improve soil structure. Mulch acid-loving heathers with leaf mould or bark chippings, and alkaline-tolerant heathers with well-rotted manure or compost.
Most heathers should be cut back to the base after flowering – they don’t grow well from old wood, so discard any that have become woody and leggy. The exception to this rule is the tree heather (Erica arborea). For the first couple of years after planting, prune back by two-thirds. Thereafter, little pruning is necessary. Other tree heathers, Erica australis and Erica lusitanica should be cut back after flowering.
Growing heather: problem-solving
Heathers suffer few problems. However, if the soil becomes too alkaline, heather foliage may turn yellow. In this case, feed with an ericaceous fertiliser in late March or early April, and mulch with leaf mould or bark chippings.
Types of heather to grow
Erica arborea var. alpina ‘Albert’s Gold’
Tree heather, Erica arborea var. alpina ‘Albert’s Gold’ bears soft, golden-green foliage on tall, upright plants, with fragrant white flowers.
Height x spread: 1.5m x 80cm
Erica carnea alba ‘Whitehall’
Winter-flowering heather with dainty white bells with chocolate anthers. A striking variety and perfect for cutting. Upright habit.
H x S: 30cm x 20cm
Erica x darleyensis ‘Darley Dale’
This pretty pink-and-cream winter-flowering variety flowers over a long period.
H x S: 30cm x 60cm
Erica x veitchii ‘Exeter’
H x S: 2m x 2m
Erica carnea ‘Vivellii’
Gorgeous pink-purple blooms are enhanced by rich bronze winter foliage.
H x S: 15cm x 50cm
Summer-flowering heather comes in a range of colours, including pink (pictured.
H x S: 20cm x 35cm