Easily overlooked and hugely underrated, winter flowering heathers can bring colour, scent and structure to a garden during the coldest months...
There are two main misconceptions about winter flowering heathers: the first that they all need primping and preening with ericaceous soil, and secondly, they must be planted in an island bed.
It was back in the 1960s, when winter heathers, namely Erica carnea and E. darleyensis, reached the height of their popularity. Planted en masse in raised rockeries – multiplying like bacteria in a petri dish alongside dwarf conifers – these island beds soon became monuments to their demise. When the evergreens began dying off and the neglected heathers became a tangle of flowerless twigs, they didn’t seem quite so ‘low maintenance’ anymore. More recently, having become a major plant for the horticultural trade, they’ve been given hideous punk rocker styling with blue and orange dyes too. Poor Erica.
But I love winter heathers. They’re happy in pots, in woodland plantings (as long as they get some dappled sun), as a border edging or pride of place alongside flowering perennials and grasses. And they are also happy in alkaline soils. In fact, winter heathers are not fussy about the soil PH and can tolerate lime and chalky soil, which allows them to be planted in most gardens, even in Cambridge! Inexpensive, evergreen, flowering all winter, and playing nicely with a multitude of plants: what’s not to like?
Blooms for the bees
Heather flowers are the big draw for me. From red to purple, through mauve, pink and white, there seems to be a colour for all schemes. What’s more they flower for very long periods: through December snow and January winds, right up until the first daffodils emerge.
Among the best specimens are the striking E. darleyensis ‘Kramers Red’, or E. carnea ‘December Red’ with urn-shaped blooms that start off pink and turn to light purple as they mature. Then there’s E. carnea ‘Rosalie’ AGM with its deep rosy pink flowers set against dark bronze foliage and E. carnea ‘Springwood White’, providing a drift of snow even if there isn’t any forecast. This particular variety has trailing stems and a lovely scent too.
The flowers draw insects from far and wide, making heather a perfect wildlife garden specimen. They are a lifeline for bumblebees and solitary bees, which tend to emerge on mild days even in winter. Heather provides one of their earliest sources of food.
Turn over a new leaf
But the interest doesn’t just stop at the flowers. Many types of heather have interesting foliage, and mixing and matching them in one design can produce a vivid carpet of colours, even in shadier spots.
E. darleyensis F. Aurefolia ‘Moonshine’ has bright lime foliage against pale pink flowers, while E. carnea f. alba ‘Golden Starlet’ AGM holds its white flowers above neat needles of lime-green foliage that turn golden over the summer. E. darleyensis ‘Tweety’ runs through shades of yellow, gold and beige before finishing in a crescendo of orange in winter. Others have unusual colouration in the tips of new growth, which appear like flowers. For example tree heather E × veitchii ‘Gold Tips’ AGM has dark green foliage that is tipped with yellow in the spring.
Heather and friends
With their low-growing habit – and ability to disappear into the background in summer – winter heathers provide a versatile canvas too.
Heathers are best planted in groups in odd numbers, and in late winter there’s nothing prettier than snowdrops, crocuses and cyclamen poking through the needle-like leaves, or spring-flowering dwarf irises and narcissi.
Because they tolerate dappled shade, heathers are a good choice for planting under native trees such as beech, birch and oak too. Dwarf grasses work well, alongside the traditional rhododendrons, but lavender and pieris japonica blend beautifully. An all white winter garden with white heathers, camellia ‘Winter Snowman’ and white hellebores can be stunning.
And if you thought they were only good for ground covering, tree heathers (Erica arborea) can reach up to four metres. They do best when they are pruned, to keep them bushy, and can even make informal hedges.
Planted in drifts you could almost imagine you’re walking among the resinous garrigue on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast, or in the sandy scrubland of the Cape.