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Erica herbacea L.

Winter or Snow Heath

Modern name

Erica herbacea L.


E. carnea L.; E. mediterranea L. (but not of gardens)

A low shrub of tufted habit from 6 to 10 in. high, the branches becoming prostrate and spreading on old plants; young twigs glabrous. Leaves linear, 16 to 13 in. long, dark glossy green above, channelled beneath; arranged mostly in whorls of fours, the whorls 112 to 18 in. apart. Flowers borne singly or in pairs in the leaf-axils at the end of the previous summer’s growth, making cylindrical racemes 1 to 2 in. long. Corolla deep rosy red, scarcely 14 in. long, cylindrical; calyx-lobes narrowly oblong, more than half the length of the corolla, anthers protruded, dark red; flower-stalk about as long as the calyx.

Native of the Alps, the Apennines and some of the mountains of E. Europe; introduced by the Earl of Coventry in 1763. One of the most delightful of all dwarf shrubs, this heath is especially valuable for its early flowering. Soon after New Year’s Day (or even earlier) the blossoms begin to open, and often by February the plants are transformed into masses of rosy red, all the more pleasing because the prevailing tints of the plants then in flower are yellow, white, and blue. In a young state the plants form dainty little tufts, but with age the branches spread over the ground, and one plant will in time cover 2 ft or more of space, always keeping its surface well clothed with the dark green leafy twigs. Plants can be kept particularly neat, thick, and dwarf, by cutting them over in early April or as soon as the flowers lose colour. This heath is admirable for furnishing the shelves of the rock garden, and for forming broad patches of colour wherever a dwarf evergreen is suitable. By some authors it and E. erigena are regarded as forms of the same species. In botanical characteristics the two are similar, but E. herbacea is, of course, very distinct in its dwarf or semi-prostrate habit, in its more conspicuously exposed anthers, and in flowering earlier. It is also much hardier.

It is regrettable that the familiar name E. carnea has to give way to E. herbacea, for reasons explained by R.Ross in Jour. Linn. Soc. (Bot.), Vol. 60 (1967), pp. 61-68.

f. alba (Dipp.) Schneid. – Plants with white flowers occur quite commonly in the wild. The form once cultivated as alba has been superseded by ‘Springwood White’ (see below).

Many named clones of E. herbacea are in commerce, of which the following is only a selection:

‘King George’. – Flowers clear, rosy crimson; dark green foliage. December-February. Often wrongly called ‘Winter Beauty’.

‘Ruby Glow’. – Flowers deep carmine-red; foliage bronzy green; spreading habit. March-April.

‘Springwood Pink’. – Flowers light pink; vigorous trailing habit. January-March.

‘Springwood White’. – Of a similar habit to ‘Springwood Pink’; flowers white, with prominent brown anthers, in long spikes. January-March.

‘Vivellii’. – Flowers deep carmine-red; foliage dark green in summer, bronzy in winter. February-March.

From the Supplement (Vol. V)

The reasons for supplanting the familiar name E. carnea L. by E. herbacea L. are discussed by David McClintock in the Year Book of the Heather Society for 1982, pp. 23-5; see also Taxon, Vol. 31(2), pp. 319-20. The best hope of maintaining the name E. carnea rests with a decision of the most recent International Botanical Congress (Sydney, 1981), which provides for the conservation of the names of species ‘of major economic importance’, subject to recommendation and approval by the relevant committees and final ratification by the next congress. Whether E. carnea will survive the course remains to be seen.

The following should be added to the list of recommended cultivars:

December Red’. – Similar to ‘Springwood Pink’, but with flowers of a brighter pink and the foliage darker green.

Loughrigg’. – A seedling of ‘Vivellii’, of more vigorous growth, with rosy purple flowers. Leaves dark green. February-March.

Myretoun Ruby’. – Flowers of an intense rosy pink. Foliage dark green. February-April.

Praecox Rubra’. – Flowers rosy pink. Prostrate habit. December-February.



Other species in the genus