23 April 2008

Heath or Heather? Do you know the difference?

Someone asked in an earlier post--and I'm really tired tonight so can't go back to check--about the difference between heaths and heathers. I'm no expert on these plants, though I do love them and am slowly building a collection. But I can tell you a bit about them.

Heaths (Erica genus) and heathers (Calluna genus) are both members of the Ericaceous, or heath, family, which includes Rhododendrons, Azalea, Ledum (sometimes seen as Rhododendron) Andromeda, Pieris, Gaultheria, Vaccinium...all of which are acid soil preferring plants, woody shrubs, some evergreen, some deciduous.

Nova Scotia, like the rest of the Atlantic provinces, is mostly well suited to growing ericaceous plants because we have a lot of acid soil. The exceptions to that would be the areas with more calcareous soils, which are alkaline, such as around the gypsum quarries near Windsor. But with some regular soil testing and amending, gardeners can make their soil agreeable for ericaceous plants.

Ericas, or heaths, bloom in late winter to spring. Heath rhymes with Easter, which is how I learned to remember which flowered when. Heaths also have foliage that looks like little tiny evergreen needles. Of course, both heaths and heathers do amazing things with their foliage in fall to winter. This one, Mary Helen, is an Erica x darleyensis hybrid, and as you can see has fantastic colour. I bought this plant yesterday to celebrate Earth Day. No, not really--I bought it because I wanted it! and to go with it, a second heath called Darley Dale, because when I was cleaning up around my heath/heather bed, I realized I had more heathers than heaths, and I wanted to add more plants for bee and other pollinator encouragement.

Heathers start to bloom generally in midsummer, and can continue throughout the fall. This particular beauty is Con Brio, I think--my labels have lasted well but I'm still getting mixed up with some of the varieties I have. Notice how the leaves of heather are more scaley than needle-like; that and their flowering period is mostly how you tell the difference between the two genera; and no one will scold you if you call them all heathers. At least, I won't.

Both heaths and heathers work marvelously well with conifers, perennials including perennial grasses, broadleafed evergreens, and well, okay, most any other plant you choose to add to your bed. Just bear in mind not to plant things that will overwhelm the heath plants, which tend to spread out into handsome mats but not get too tall. This is one of the display beds down at Bunchberry Nurseries, and it may explain a little bit why I am so obsessed with evergreens, and urge others to try evergreens as well. I'll be writing more about them in future posts.

Another one of the display beds at Bunchberry. Jill will have a booth at Saltscapes Expo (only three days away! Ack! I'm not finished my talk preparation yet) so for those of you in the area, do drop in to the show on Friday-Sunday and see Jill. I plan to go back down in a couple of weeks and collect a few plants that I've been salivating over. It's just hard to decide on ONLY a few...one must pay other bills and so on.

I leave you with a bit of a puzzle. Last year, this was one of the plants Jill brought to the Expo. I took one look at it and went into complete and utter plant lust mode. It's not the most showy of plants in the garden, but it's strikingly different, and one of the reasons I think conifers and other evergreens are so interesting. Talk about texture. This is a fascinating plant, and doing very nicely in my garden. Well, yes, of COURSE I had to have it! I'll post the answer with my next post.


  1. Evergreens is the bone of the garden and makes it beautiful in the winter as well. I try to follow the rule 70% of planting should be evergreen.
    thujopsis dolabrata?

  2. I am glad you posted about the Heathes and Heathers Jodi. I have often asked myself that question.

    I love all evergreens and conifers. I wish I had room for more. Sometimes I envy your space. Then I get out there and weed and I think I need a condo. Ha... Happy Earth Day.

  3. Hi Jodi, yes I do know the difference, did a post on it as one of my very firstest stories when the blogging began, even. Don't know the name of your mystery plant, but love the reddish tips. Isn't it amazing the the same plant can thrive in both of our climates, we must both have the acidic well drained soil they love. I wish I could come hear you give a talk, I would give a standing ovation!

  4. Thanks for the info on heaths and heathers ... I didn't know the difference.

  5. I'm forever confused about heaths and heathers too - but now I'll remember "heathster". Your puzzle plant has me wishing I retained more from the I.D. classes I've taken. Those lobster claw needles are a dead giveaway for ... something or other!

    And I meant to congrats you in my last comment for your Mousie nominations - Way to go!

  6. Loved the heath/heather clarification. Put in my first heathers last year but I don't know anything about maintenance so they never got cut back (are they supposed to be?) last fall.

    I really stopped in to say, "WOOHOO" on the multiple Mousies nominations. You deserve all the kudos you can get. Way to go.


  7. I, too, now know the difference. I have neither, but love the look. Maybe I can find a spot or 2-always room for one more plant! Thanks for the interesting post.

  8. Lovely photos, I have always admired northern gardens with conifers, heaths, heathers in the shrub beds...the variety of texture and different greens are stunning. Alas, too warm weather and too neutral shallow soil makes for a mostly conifer free zone.
    and I want to add my voice in saying congratulations on the mousies.


  9. It looks like Japanese Staghorn Cedar to me - Thujopsis Dolobrata (well it does to me anyway)

    I gave up trying to remember what is a heath and which is a heather - instead go for Eric and Calluna - Calluna = Scale foliage (CAL una - s CAL e) and erica has needle foliage.

    Love the Con Brio though - stunning

  10. Thanks for the clarification. Unfortunately they should only be treated as annuals in our climate. Although we have the appropriate level of acid in the soil, they mug out in our heat and humidity during the summer. We are much better suited to growing thier larger cousins, the azaleas.

  11. Wow, what a cool post. I love the photos, no heaths nor heathers here but they sure are beautiful.

  12. You have acidic soil--we have alkaline. Obviously, we don't have heaths or heathers, but they are beautiful. Great info.

  13. I can never keep them apart which leads me to have the attitude of wanting to have "lots of each" and not worrying about it. :)

  14. I find plants with texture just as pretty as those with flowers. I love to look at the intricate shapes and colors. They are less boring and have more character, in my book.

  15. I'd say Thujopsis also and the deer are loving mine!

  16. Nice play on words if your mystery evergreen is a monkey puzzle tree ;)

    Loved the interesting discourse on the Ericas. I don't have either heath or heather but we do have a lot of blueberry bushes, rhodies, azaleas, pieris and even a few gaultheria and a barely surviving Enkianthus. I guess I'm smitten by their characteristic bell shaped pendant flowers.

  17. Delightful and informative post, Jodi. Though I don't have either heath or heather in my garden, I have often wondered. With your busy schedule, I thank you for keeping your 'students' on their toes!


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