I don’t need convincing that growing heathers makes sense as someone passionate about honey bee plants. There are winter heathers, or strictly heaths, to last through the colder months and offer a source of nectar and pollen at this time of scarcity. But I think I could do with some help to design them into my (alkaline soil) garden. Luckily the winter heaths, Erica x darleyensis, Erica erigena & Erica carnea, the latter coming from the central and southern European Alps, don’t need an acid soil, in fact they will grow in all soil types, acid or alkaline, heavy clay or free draining sand, full sun or partial shade.
Beware bud bloomers and misclaims
So go down to the garden centre and by some straight away? Not so fast. They are available in your local garden centre but often you find what are known as bud bloomers. These are varieties of Calluna vulgaris (which need an acid soil and full sun), and look as if they are in full flower but these colourful buds will never open. The buds lack the mechanism to open into flower, thus staying closed, denying any pollinating insect the chance of nectar and pollen. It is strange that Dobbies is selling these ‘Gardengirls’ (registered trade name), with the RHS ‘Plants for Pollinators’ tag. Here’s the link to check if it’s still the case): https://www.dobbies.com/products/plants/calluna/calluna-vulgaris-(budbloomer)/ Which brings to mind Dave Goulson’s crowdfunded study into plants labelled as good for pollinators. Ihttps://walacea.com/campaigns/pesticides-neonics-and-bees-keeping-bees-safe-in-our-gardens/ I digress.
Fountain of youth
Pollen is important for developing bees and a shortage of it can have an impact on the health of the whole colony. Pollen supplies protein from which a substance called vitellogenin is made. Vitellogenin has earned itself the label ‘fountain of youth’ (for bees only I’m afraid) and while levels are high, bees will stay younger and their role as nurse bees will last for longer. When the levels drop they will move to their next role in life, foraging.
Also when vitellogenin is plentiful foragers will collect more pollen and raise more brood whereas when it is scarce nurse bees become foragers and collect more nectar to keep the existing bees going. So reliable pollen availability in winter months could give colonies a distinct health advantage.
The next ‘in’ thing?
So how can one find early flowering heathers? John Hall has been growing heathers and heaths for 40 years, and his Father for forty before him. He has seen garden fashions change and remembers heathers selling like hot cakes. Unfortunately when fashion heights are hit a corresponding low is almost inevitable but just as dahlias and gladioli are making a comeback I suspect heathers may be destined for the same.
For the past 50 years golf courses have been ruthlessly removing heather but now they are John’s biggest bulk buyers as they put them back. Gleneagles have introduced hives to their estates by using the honey in their kitchens. Some golf courses are even selling honey to their members and finding it so popular they’ve run out.
This environment is the heathers’ natural habitat (Calluna vulgaris, Erica cinerea and Erica tetralix species), and they flower in the summer from July to October. Varieties have been bred to offer a heath or heather in flower for every month of the year, and not many species can make that claim, but these summer flowering species do need an acid soil and open sunny site. So the all year round claim can only be realised in an acid environment such as the New Forest in this area.
Adding heathers to your winter garden
I don’t know about you, but I have so convinced myself of the value of heathers in a winter garden that I shall try to create a small heather garden (on my alkaline soil) to offer bees nectar and pollen for as much of the winter as I can. I have been working on winter structure in the garden for a couple of years but I’m afraid my imagination has only stretched to some spherical balls of Box, Pyracantha and Lonicera and a few colourful Cornus sticks. I’m choosing a selection of the Erica carnea that have similar foliage colour and will flower in succession from November through to April. They like to be in an open position, think of the moors or alps, and as E.carneas are from the mountains they would like a free-draining soil. My garden is next to a water meadow so I shall be seeking advice on the most damp-tolerant Erica carneas.
John Hall’s advice:
As long as heather roots are not constantly waterlogged they will fare well.
Varieties recommended for winter & spring colour:
Dwarf (grow to 6” in height and 18” spread)
Erica carnea ‘Challenger’ – crimson flowers on dark green foliage.
Erica carnea ‘Rosalie’ – deep pink flowers on mid-green foliage.
Erica carnea ‘Whitehall – white flowers on bright green foliage.
Medium (grow to 12” high and 24” spread)
Erica x darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Rote’ – magenta flowers on dark green foliage.
Erica x darleyensis ‘Ghost Hills’ – pink flowers on mid-green foliage.
Erica x darleyensis ‘White Perfection’ – white flowers on bright green foliage.
Tall (grow to 24” high and 18” spread)
Erica erigena ‘Irish Dusk’ – salmon pink flowers on dark blue-green foliage.
Erica erigena ‘W.T. Rackliffe’ – white flowers on bright green foliage.
Winter gardens to visit
For further inspiration I recommend a visit to RHS gardens at Rosemoor in Devon and Wisley (holder of the National Collection), both of which have superb winter gardens. A smorgasbord of heathers cover the ground and elegant snowy white birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) give height and structure while Cornus sanguinea provides a warming orange glow.
Heathers and heaths are available from John at:-
John Hall Plants Ltd
Off Churt Road
Tel: 01428 715505
Mob: 0771 4344327
Visitors are most welcome, please call 0771 4344327 prior. He also operates mail order.