The Heathers Flowers
Few plants are as closely associated with one particular geographical location as is heather. Heather and the moors of Scotland are practically synonymous. Yet variations and cultivars of the plant commonly known as heather are wide and diverse. Include Mexican heather (also known as false heather) in the mix, and there is a heather that can be successfully grown in almost every garden.
Most plants commonly referred to as heather belong to the Ericaceae plant family. The Erica genus of the Ericaceae family of plants includes about 860 species of flowering plants. Yet it is Calluna vulgaris, the sole species in the genus Calluna of the Ericaceae family that is the most widespread of heathers, and the species longest associated with the heather name.
Origin of the Name
The first use of the word “heather” has been dated back as far 1584, and is generally presumed to be derived from the Scots word “haeddre,” which appears in records from the 1300s. The plant family name “Ericaceae” comes from the Greek word for heath and heather, “Ereike.”
The species name “Calluna” is from the Greek “Kallunein,” which means to clean or to brush, and may be a reference either to the brooms commonly made from the twigs of the plant or from its medicinal uses for “cleansing” the system.
Calluna vulgaris is Scotland’s most prolific native plant, covering about 5 million acres of the countryside. This species is also found all along the seaboard of Western Europe, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, and extending east as far as the Ural Mountains.
Heathers known as “Cape heaths,” which abound in Southern Africa, consist of about 750 species of the Erica genus of the Ericaceae family.
Description and Characteristics
Calluna vulgaris is a low-growing perennial shrub which generally grows 20 to 50 centimeters (8 inches to 20 inches) tall. The leaves are small, growing in overlapping pairs, and are primarily dark green. It is the heather flower, however, that makes this plant so popular.
Heather flowers emerge in late summer and in wild plants are typically mauve, although white flowers also occur naturally. Usually growing in one-sided racemes, the small heather flowers (about 3 millimeters or 1/8 inch long) are normally single, with the corolla in four oblong petals, overlapped by a calyx of similar hue and size.
To say that heather is iconic of Scotland is an understatement. The hardy heather flower has long been closely linked to the enduring characteristics of the people of Scotland. Poets of Scotland have given tribute to the flowering heath.
Robert Burns wrote: “We’ll sing auld Coila’s plains and fells, her moors red-brown wi’ heather bells.” Emily Bronte’s “High Waving Heather ‘neath Stormy Blasts Bending” is perhaps her best known and best loved poem.
Indirectly, Emily Bronte would later spread heather’s popularity worldwide, but the first woman to raise the heather flower from a local favorite to greater acceptance was Queen Victoria, whose solitary nature warmed quickly to the lonely moors, and who spoke so highly of heather that the flower’s popularity spread to all of Britain.
The heathered moors are a primary element of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” synonymous with the temperament of the novel’s star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine. Indeed, on her deathbed, Cathy closely identifies with the flower as she cries:
“I wish I were out of doors! I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free; and laughing at injuries, not maddening under them! Why am I so changed? why does my blood rush into a hell of tumult at a few words? I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills.”
Emily Bronte’s depiction of heather caught the world’s imagination. Samuel Goldwyn’s 1939 movie production of the novel clinched the deal. Starring Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon, the movie contained references to heather not in Bronte’s book, most significantly in the scene where the two declare their love to each other on the moors.
Cathy calls upon Heathcliff to “Fill my arms with heather. All they can hold.” After the release of this movie, the popularity of heather was assured.
Cultivation and Care
The Ericaceae family are compromised of mostly “calcifuge” (lime-hating) plants that do best in acidic soils. Heathers thrive in open, sunny areas and in moderate shade. Heathers are tolerant of grazing and will regenerate after light burning.
One raceme of tiny heather flowers can produce up to 150,000 seeds, which are typically shed in winter. Heather can survive in many soil types, even soils lacking in normally essential elements, and there are varieties available that will tolerate either wet or dry soil.
Diseases and Pests
Sheep and deer will graze upon the tips of plants when snow covers the low-growing vegetation. Heather seeds abundantly, and will draw birds such as Grouse. The hardy heathers are relatively unaffected by pests, although the Heather Beetle (Lochmaea suturalis), both adult and larva, can be deadly for the plant. A number of Lepidoptera larvae also feed on heather.
Historically, heather was used to dye wool yellow and in the tanning of leather. Heather has been widely used in housing construction, specifically in thatching roofs. The plant has been used for fuel for the hearth, woven into baskets, used for pot scrubbers and brooms, and as stuffing for mattresses.
Heather has also been used since the Middle Ages in the brewing of heather beer and in honey. Until the nineteenth century, heather was closely associated with poverty, which may explain why these latter two uses are more valued today than formerly. Queen Victoria made white heather popular, and inclusion of the sprigs are still popular in British bridal bouquets.
Heather tea is made from dried heather flowers which are then liquidized until they are bruised and broken up, spread in an open, cool space, then left for several hours to allow the mash to ferment. The mixture is then dried in an oven until dry. Mixing the finished product with ordinary tea produces an attractive and flavorful brew.
Medicinal uses of heather have been recorded as far back as the seventh century. In the 1500s, several books mention heather being used for ulcers, external and internal, kidney stones, as well as for insect bites and eye infections.
Twentieth century physicians and pharmacists have recommended heather for conditions varying from sore throats and coughs to arthritis and gout. Herbalists use Calluna vulgaris for cystitis, as heather is both a diuretic and antimicrobial.
With its compact size, so useful in mass plantings, so charming in cut flower arrangements, and so fragrant with emotional connotations, there is a heather to be cultivated in every garden. Heather has been lauded by monarchs and poets, and will no doubt continue to inspire praise.
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