An evergreen shrub up to 3 ft high (usually from 9 to 24 in.), of staggling habit, much branched; branches densely leafy, and either downy or glabrous. Leaves opposite, arranged in four rows, giving a quadrangular shape to the twig, 1⁄20 to 1⁄10 in. long, closely packed and scale-like. Flowers in slender, one-sided racemes, 1 to 6, or as much as 12 in. long, purplish pink, varying in depth of shade in different plants. The calyx is the chief ornamental part of the flower, and consists of four nearly separate, narrowly oval sepals 3⁄16 in. long; the corolla is about half as long. Stamens eight.
This is the shrub which covers so many thousands of acres of the moors and mountains of the north of England and Scotland, and makes them so beautiful in late summer and autumn. Among native woody plants it is the most abundant and covers the greatest area. In good soil it is apt to grow too quickly and become gaunt and bare, and short-lived; this can be remedied to some extent by cutting over the plants in early spring before growth recommences and removing all the old flower-stems. A poor soil, with peat mixed, keeps the plants dwarf and in better habit. The named varieties, of which there are many, are increased by cuttings or by division. They are useful for planting in masses on dry banks, which, with a little attention at first to weeding and perhaps watering, they will soon take complete possession of, giving beautiful patches of colour from July onwards for many years.
Bees are particularly fond of the flowers, and the honey they give is regarded as of special quality. In my native village in Yorkshire it used to be, and probably still is, the practice for the beehives of the cottagers to be laden on vans and taken every summer to the moors, ten or more miles away, for the bees to collect honey there from the heather. They were brought back in autumn. Branches of heather are much used in the north also for making besoms – in the same way that birch twigs are used in the south.
f. alba (West.) Braun-Blanquet var. alba (West.) G. Don; E. vulgaris var. alba West. – Flowers white. A fairly common variant.
var. hirsuta (Waitz) S. F. Gray Erica vulgaris var. hirsuta Waitz; C. vulgaris var. tomentosa G. Don; C. vulgaris var. incana Reichb.; C. vulgaris var. hirsuta f. typica Beijerinck – Stems and leaves clad with a greyish indumentum. Occasionally found wild with the type. The forma typica of Beijerinck was intended to distinguish the wild forms of var. hirsuta from the various cultivars which he classified under this variety.
Many clones have been named, some of them descending from wild plants and others of nursery origin. For a full account of these and for guidance on cultivation and arrangement the following works are recommended: F. J. Chapple, The Heather Garden, 1964; A. T. Johnson, Hardy Heaths, 1956; J. F. Letts, Hardy Heaths and the Heather Garden, 1966; D. Fyfe Maxwell and P. S. Patrick, The English Heather Garden, 1966. The Heather Society, founded in 1963, publishes a Year Book. For the following short selection from the cultivars we are indebted to The Royal Horticultural Society.
‘Alba Jae’. – White, very compact and erect, foliage bright medium green. 9 in. Aug.
‘Alba Plena’. – Double white. Large flowers. Very free flowering. Compact, 8 in. Aug.
‘Alportii’. – Bright crimson, in long erect spikes. 2 ft. Aug.
‘August Beauty’. – White. Fairly compact, slightly spreading, vigorous. Foliage medium dark green. 11 in. July-Aug.
‘Aurea’. – Soft mauve. Foliage gold in spring, green in summer, red in winter. Slender stems. 7 in. Late July-Aug.
‘Barnett Anley’. – Petunia Purple. Compact and erect, vigorous. Foliage fairly dark green. 1 ft. Aug.
‘County Wicklow’. – Clear pink, double in spikes. 3-6 in. long, of dense prostrate habit. Foliage dark green. 9 in. July-Sept.
‘C. W. Nix’. – Dark crimson. Tall and graceful with feathery stems. 2 ft. Aug.-Sept.
‘Drum-ra’. – White. Compact and erect, vigorous. Foliage medium green. 11 in. Aug.
‘Elsie Purnell’. – Amaranth Rose, double, on spikes 61⁄2 in. long. Very vigorous and compact. 21 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Foxii Nana’. – Light purple, shy flowering. A good foliage plant forming dwarf, dense, compact cushions of deep green. 3-6 in. July-Oct.
‘Fred J. Chapple’. – Mallow Purple in spikes 4 in. long. Foliage medium green, but varying from gold, cream, and pink to copper; tips coral-pink. 10 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Gold Haze’. – Plentiful white flowers. A fine bright golden-yellow foliage plant, the colour persisting throughout the year. 7 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘H. E. Beale’ – Silvery pink, double, large, in long spikes of strong branching open habit. 18 in. One of the best heathers, succeeding even on clay soil. Aug.-Oct.
‘J. H. Hamilton’. – Fuchsia Pink, fully double, on slender 6 to 10 in. high stems of semi-prostrate habit, making a dwarf mat of interlacing growth. 9-12 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Joan Sparkes’. – Double pale pink, of trailing habit. 9 in. Aug.-Oct.
‘Mair’s Variety’. – Pure white in long spikes. Of upright branching growth. Foliage medium green. 21⁄2 ft. Aug.-Sept.
‘Mullion’. – Orchid Purple. Low and close-growing. Foliage medium green. 5 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Multicolor’. – Phlox Purple. Of vigorous and spreading habit. Foliage medium green tipped golden and coral. 8-10 in. Late July-Aug.
‘Peter Sparkes’. – Late flowering but similar in growth to ‘H. E. Beale’, of which it is stated to be a sport, but with flowers of a deeper pink. Aug.-Oct.
‘Robert Chapman’. – Rose Purple. Compact and fairly erect. Foliage green tinged yellow. Winter foliage medium green overlaid orange-red to scarlet. 8-10 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Rosalind’. – Mallow Purple. Vigorous and erect. Foliage yellowish green. 10 in. Aug.-Sept.
‘Serlei’. – Pure white, freely produced on feathery branches, of rather tall and pyramidal habit, reaching a height of 2-3 ft. An excellent white heather of vigorous habit. Sept.-Nov.
‘Serlei Aurea’. – Similar to the above, with attractive golden foliage.
‘Tib’. – Cyclamen Purple. Compact and erect, vigorous. Foliage dark green. 10 in. One of the first callunas to flower. July-Aug.