Growing Heathers (Erica)
Common name: Heath, Heather
Heathers have much to offer, and with careful choice it is possible to have plants in bloom throughout the year. Whilst a bed given over to these plants exclusively can be stunning, and it is arguably the best way to display them, this is not to everyone’s taste and not everyone can afford to set aside the required amount of space.
This should in no way detract from these colourful plants, as they can be used with great effect in the border. Compact varieties are perfect for the rock garden, and many forms are successful simply as ground cover.
One important consideration is the type ofyou have. Some forms of Erica require acid conditions. Fortunately this does not apply to them all — the winter-flowering heathers, including Erica carnea, will grow in alkaline soils.
Popular species and varieties
Among the best known ericas are the numerous varieties of E. cornea, which grow to around 23cm (9in) in height and, depending on the variety, can flower from late autumn to early spring. There are a whole host from which to choose, among them old favourites such as ‘King George’, rose-pink; ‘Springwood White’ (AGM), and ‘Pink Spangles’ (AGM) with rosy-red .
Also tolerant of lime, and winter-flowering, is Erica x darleyensis which grows to 60cm (24in). Among the forms available are ‘Arthur Johnson’ (AGM), rose pink, and ‘Furzey’ (AGM), rich pink. Grown for their summer flowers are numerous varieties of the bell heather (Erica cinerea). These are lime-haters, growing 23-30cm (9—12in) high. Among them are ‘C. G. Best’ (AGM), rose pink, and the deep beetroot-red ‘Velvet Night’ (AGM). The Cornish heath (Erica vagans) grows to 60cm (24in) and will not tolerate lime. ‘Cornish Cream’ (AGM), with long racemes of white flowers, is a good choice. The tree heather (Erica arborea) grows to 3m (10ft) or more in ideal conditions; here again it is a lime-hater One noted for its bright golden foliage and white flowers is ‘Albert’s Gold’ (AGM).
Soil type The preferred soil type varies between the species, but it is safe to say that most require peaty, acid conditions. The exceptions are the ericas that flower in winter or early spring, which will tolerate alkaline soils to which peat has been incorporated.
Planting This can be done in the autumn or spring. The plants appreciate an open, sunny spot Plant so that the stem is buried, with foliage resting on the soil. Irrespective of type, always incorporate peat at the planting stage, as this will help to improve water-holding capacity on light soils. Heavy conditions can be improved by incorporating sharp sand or grit. Keep plants well watered, especially in dry spells.
Maintenance The plants should be trimmed over as soon as flowering has finished. Remove any straggly shoots, but avoid cutting into old wood. The dead flowers on some of the summer-blooming varieties, with their varying brown shades, are ornamental during the winter and can be left until the spring.
Propagation Cuttings with a heel, taken between early summer and early autumn.
Pests and diseases Normally, no problems are experienced. A fungal disease causing die-back can attack plants.