Are you looking for a landscape plant that isn’t about the big show-off effect, but rather a subtle statement in your garden? Or perhaps you want to grow a plant that thrives in a garden of acidic soil or shines during the winter? Well, look no further than heather.
Heather is perfect for landscape gardening, or in pots. It’s easy to grow, and requires little food and attention, so what’s not to like?
If you’ve ever thought about growing heather, or you are just now considering it, let’s get started learning about this wonderful plant.
What is Heather?
Heather (Calluna vulgaris) is otherwise known as Scottish heather or Scotch heather. It is an evergreen shrub in the Ericaceae family. You’ll also find Erica, Daboecia, and Andromeda species within the heathers group.
Native to the moors and bogs of cold places like Scotland, Canada, and Scandinavia, heather adds color to what is often a dreary landscape. The green leaves are small, and the flowers are traditionally white, purple, or mauve (although other cultivars are always coming out with brighter colors).
Depending on the height of the heather, some are planted as ground cover or in rock gardens, while other heathers are tall enough to form borders.
Best grown in USDA Growing Zones 5 to 8, depending on the species and cultivar. Some even grow down to Zone 2.
Best Cultivars of Heather
More and more cultivars are being released these days as heathers gain in popularity, so make sure you look around for all of your options in your area.
If you’re looking to make a bold statement with heather, E. arborea var. alpina ‘Albert’s Gold’ is a good choice. It’s a tree heather with yellow foliage that seems to glow from within. It has white flowers that appear in the winter.
Calluna vulgaris ‘Arran Gold’ is a cultivar that is often grown for its light green to gold foliage. It will bloom from late summer to early fall.
The foliage of Calluna vulgaris ‘Bonita’ is green in the summer and orange in the fall and winter. It grows to around 13 inches tall and the flowers are pink or red.
Calluna vulgaris ‘County Wicklow’ grows to about 12 inches tall. The lush green foliage is taken over by a lot of large pink flowers from mid-summer to late fall.
Erica x darleyensis ‘Darley Dale’ has bright pink flowers on a compact shrub that doesn’t mind the heat and full sun. It blooms during the winter.
This is one colorful heather. The foliage of Calluna vulgaris ‘Firefly’ starts out as light brown in summer and turns red in fall and winter. The flowers start out as green/yellow and end up light purple.
With foliage that is yellowish in the summer to light red in winter, C. vulgaris ‘Robert Chapman’ grows up to 18 inches tall. The flowers form in clusters about 10 inches long and are either pink or mauve.
If you live somewhere warm, E. carnea ‘Springwood White’ is a smart choice. It can handle heat and sun and still produces beautiful white blossoms.
Mauve flowers bloom in summer on beautiful Calluna vulgaris ‘Wickwar Flame.’ The foliage is red and orange in winter and orange and yellow in summer and early fall.
There are other cultivars that may be available in your area, so make sure you look around. You may even find cultivars that will happily grow up to USDA Growing Zone 8.
Most people opt to grow heather by buying a seedling and planting their heather that way. If you go this route, plant outside in spring as soon as you can work the soil. Dig a hole slightly larger than the container and put the plant in place.
Although heather sometimes forms seeds, the resulting plant won’t be true to the mother plant, or they may be sterile. Your heather propagation needs to come from cuttings. If you still want to try seeds (like me), see the method below.
Timing is important for this process. Take your cuttings in late summer. Keep them inside while they root and strengthen over fall and winter. Plant outside in spring.
- Take a cutting that is at least six inches in length. Choose a healthy one that isn’t too woody. Cut it below a node and make sure there are at least two leaves on the upper half of the cut stem.
- Cut the bottom of the stem at an angle and dip in rooting hormone. Often you don’t need rooting hormone with many plants, but with heather, it gives it a boost that it seems to appreciate.
- In a pot that is at least six inches deep, place about an inch of compost. Fill the remainder of the pot with vermiculite or a soilless mix.
- Create a deep hole with a pencil and plant the heather cutting. Tamp down and water well with a spray bottle. Place it in a spot where it will receive indirect sunlight.
- Take a plastic bag and place it over the pot without touching the cutting. This creates a tiny greenhouse. Once a day, remove the bag for an hour or two just to make sure the cutting gets decent airflow.
- Once the cutting grows new leaves or buds, remove the bag for good.
- Keep the soil moist until spring and plant in the garden after hardening it off.
Heather is often a fire-induced germinator. This means it germinates after a forest fire has burned the area. You can actually try to recreate this for planting seeds (but don’t start a fire where your heather is).
- Heat your oven to 250ºF. Place your seeds on a heatproof tray in a single layer so they’re not touching each other.
- Place in the oven for 30 seconds. You just want the heat to circulate around them briefly, not cook them.
- Use a soilless mix and fill a pot. Place three seeds in the pot, and cover with a light sprinkling of more soilless mix.
- Water with a spray bottle and place in indirect sunlight. You can place a plastic bag over the container, but just make sure no mold grows on the soilless mix.
- See what germinates. You never know what you’ll get with heather seeds.
How to Care For Heather
Provide heather at least six hours of sunlight a day. Try to plant where those six hours aren’t in the hottest part of the day.
Heather has one main rule if you want it to thrive. You must grow heather in soil that drains well. It thrives in the wild in rocky soil, where it is exposed to salt spray, and peaty soil conditions, but consistently wet roots are a death sentence.
Soil pH should be around 4.0 to 5.5. You don’t need to add fertilizer. Heather is a plant that takes care of itself. That’s why it grows so well in the bogs of Europe.
Having said that, if the heather struggles you can add a little fertilizer to add nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium because acidic soil is often deficient in those nutrients. However, don’t fertilize until you’ve tested your soil to ensure that a deficiency is the problem.
Heather likes soil that doesn’t have a lot of nutrients in it, so lack of fertilizer is rarely a problem. Don’t add lime to alter the soil, either. Heather likes the acidity.
Water well in the first year. You want the soil to remain moist at first, so add water if the soil starts to dry out. After the first year, the heather should take care of itself water-wise, unless you live in a very dry region.
If you do, look to some of the cultivars that can handle warmer, drier conditions, and be sure to irrigate regularly.
Bigger, older heather can get a bit leggy, so prune to shape and retain the compact shape. You can also prune in spring if you want to encourage faster growth.
Planting Heather in Containers
Heathers grow extremely well in a container, so long as you provide them with the right conditions.
Use a container that drains well and make sure to keep the soil moist. Containers tend to dry out more quickly. The smaller or dwarf varieties work best in containers. Smaller heather varieties that are perfect for containers include:
- December Red
- Anne Sparks
- Dark Beauty
- Ice Princess
Companion Planting for Growing Heather
The best companion plants to grow heather with are those that also love acidic soil, like:
Problems and Solutions for Growing Heather
Being a hardy plant, heather doesn’t suffer too many issues, but there are a few things to look out for.
If your heather plant has droopy leaves and looks floppy, it’s likely not getting enough sun or water. If you have it in a container, move it to a sunnier area. Remember, at least six hours per day is perfect for heather.
If your heather is planted in the garden, consider moving it, or clear away any obstructions blocking the sun. Double-check the soil moisture to make sure it’s getting regular water.
Stems Turning Brown
Heather is a good communicator. Browning of the stem is a sign there is a problem with the roots. That problem is usually too much water and insufficient drainage. This is often a problem for heather in containers.
Adjust the amount of water down that you’re giving the heather, and make sure the container drains well. If it doesn’t, consider repotting into a well-draining one.
This is a sign you are looking after your heather a little too well. Heathers love soil that is not too fertile. If you fertilize too much, you are adding too much nitrogen.
Heather sends out its roots in search of nutrients in poor soil. This makes the plant sturdy and compact. If you feed it too much, the roots stay small and it produces excessive foliage, resulting in leggy stems.
If the leaves are turning yellow, combined with mottling or other forms of distortion, you may have mites.
To learn all about mites on your plants, read our in-depth article.
Heather leaves are small, so powdery mildew looks like little white spots. To help identify, treat, and avoid powdery mildew, read our article.
Top 3 Tips for Growing Heather
- Plant in acidic soil and don’t add fertilizer unless absolutely necessary.
- Provide six hours of sunlight per day.
- Don’t overwater heather. An inch a week is sufficient.