Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter's Blooming Heath

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm.
~Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I’ve never walked the heather moors of the UK but after years of reading the likes of Daphne du Maurier, Helen MacInnes, and Mary Stewart I do believe I would very much like to. The suspenseful pens of these authors paint the moors as somewhat forsaken places extending for miles and miles with gripping hints of evil foreboding nearly everywhere and blanketed with a heavy, low, grey, cold, wet fog that chills your bones thru and thru. At other times the moors become a blustery, wind swept landscape rife with danger. Or yet another heroine in trouble will flee to the moors as a place of beauty and peaceful tranquility stretching for miles and miles with the sound of surf somewhere off in the far distance and the promise of romance in the air. One day I must visit them, I simply must!

How gorgeous it must be to see the rolling hills of blooming heather in all its unspoilt glory. Picture if you will the lovely low mounds of heather that you see in the gardens in your neighborhood. They bloom in white or various shades of pinks or purples. Now imagine scores of these colorful, blossoming mounds, huge, each one melding into another, blanketing the hills and extending on as far as the eye can see into the distance. That must be what the heather moors are like when in bloom.

Heather (Calluna) and Heath (Erica) are closely related in the family Ericaceae and easily confused even among professionals. If you want to find a specific heath or heather you simply must get the Latin name and take it with you to the nursery. Using the common name of heath or heather at nurseries online or on land can only be a study in confusion. Just look at the many common names given to the same plant that I am talking about here today…Erica carnea (winter heath, winter flowering heather, spring heath, alpine heath). They are using both heath and heather in the common name for the same plant.

In the case of today’s topic, what you want is an Erica carnea. Specifically Erica carnea ‘springwood white’.

 It is a heath. E. carnea is native to central and southern Europe. The evergreen leaves are needle-like in form but quite soft and pleasant to the touch. As a low growing shrub it grows to a compact height of 4–10 in (10–25 cm) but can carpet an area 3 times that in width after several years of growth. When properly spaced several plants can form a weed crowding carpet of color. It is one of the hardiest of all heaths and has been known to poke its blooms through a blanket of snow. It is very easy to grow in almost any soil, needing little care once established. A light annual shearing just after flowers fade make for a leafier plant that does not form a bare, woody center with age. Be sure to keep the pruning timed with flower fade. Any later jeopardizes next years bloom as future flower buds are formed during the summer. Any winter damaged branches should be pruned out in spring. It is hardy to USDA zone 4-7 with some protection. If you want a taller, rounder, bushier shaped heath look for Erica x darleyensis, USDA zones 5 and warmer.

Keep heath plantings away from the reach of a dog’s lifted leg. I planted one a few feet (approx 1 m) from my public sidewalk and dogs decided it was a fine place to leave their scent, time and again. I nearly lost it, whole branches dying off one by one. I moved it further from the sidewalk and it recovered nicely.  Presumably these dogs were being walked by their owners on leashes and now could no longer reach it.
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Winter heath is not only lovely for flower color in late winter when little else is blooming but also very important to honeybees. In late winter, reportedly triggered by the winter solstice, the queen is ready to begin laying eggs again to rebuild the colony. By late winter if you are in a cold winter area the bees will have eaten through much if not all of their food stores and in order survive and raise brood (eggs, larvae, pupae) they need to have blooms from which to forage. If there is no food available, the queen will not lay and a colony that survived winter will soon starve. Blooming heath at this time of year provides much needed nectar and pollen. When weather permits, winter flowering heaths are heavily worked by bees.

Now, if we could just get the temps up and a bit of sun here in the Pacific Northwest the bees would fly and I’d be one happy beekeeping gardener!

In Bloom in My Garden Today: Heather (Erica carnea ‘springwood white’), Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Schizostylis ‘watermelon’, Sarcococca confusa, double white daisy

Author’s photo