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What is a Heather Plant?

Long stems holding many clusters of bright pink heather flowers of the erica shrub

Genus Erica

The genus erica is comprised of a baffling 857 flowering plants more commonly known as heathers or heaths. There’s a chance you’ve heard it under the name winter heather or spring heather, to help differentiate it from certain calluna species.

The latin term, erica, is translated to broom in english, which is reference to the texture and growth habit of the plant. These small shrubs are valued as garden plants and landscape plants as they have evergreen foliage, and flowers that can maintain their color for the majority of the year.

You really can’t get a better garden plant than a heather shrub. They’re easy to maintain, they can grow nearly anywhere, they’re drought tolerant, and they provide color and texture to gardens regardless of the time of year — so read on learn how to incorporate one into your green space!

Related: Sun-Loving Flowers | Water-Loving Flowers | Shade-Loving Flowers | Types of Flowers | Types of Flowers by Color | Types of Flowers by Alphabet | Types of Flower Colors

Close up focus on white heather flowers growing amongst evergreen needles of an erica shrub

What do Heather Plants Look Like?

Growth Pattern

Different heather species will exhibit different growth habits, and they can grow to be low growing, ground cover shrubs, all the way to very tall bushy plants.

Though they will more commonly linger around 8-59 inches in height, there are some specimens that are known to obtain almost 7 metres! (Though this is an exceptional height).

Flowers

Heather flower clusters can be borne either axillary (in the axils of leaf stems) or in terminal umbels or spikes. Flowers will emerge in early spring or mid spring – usually in May – but their blooming season can last for months. There are even some cases of flowers blooming in the late winter and lasting all the way into the late summer.

In more temperate regions, a heather flower can last nearly the whole year. Flowers usually face downwards, and flower color may vary, from white flower clusters, to pink, to red, to mauve.

Super macro image of a light pink heather flower growing on an erica shrub with bloomed flowers in blurry background

Leaves

Heather shrubs are evergreen, meaning that their leaves will remain green and persist all year long. Each leaf is needle-like in appearance and texture, and they can be anywhere from 2-15mm in length.

A large part of why the species are valued ornamentally is because of its dark green foliage that provides wonderful contrast in the long, white winter months.

What are Some Heather Species?

Italian Heather (Erica Ventricosa)

Close up view of hot pink tubular flowers of erica ventricosa or italian heather shrub in full bloom

Italian heather, otherwise known as porcelain heath, giant heather, or wax heather, is a very popular ornamental shrub that is valued for its bright pink flowers.

Though they are native to the mountain slopes of the Western Cape, they have become naturalized in many places around the world as a cultivated plant for gardens and landscapes.

Winter Heath (Erica Carnea)

Clusters of beautiful light pink and hot pink flowers of the winter heather shrub erica carnea

Winter heath, otherwise known as winter flowering heather, spring heath, or alpine heath, is a flowering plant that is native to most parts of Europe.

This is a very slow growing, low spreading subshrub with evergreen leaves and bright pink flowers. Also valued for its ornamental attraction in gardens and parks because of its beauty and easy care.

It is called a winter heath because they are one of the only plants around that will maintain bright flower colors even in the dead of a bitter winter.

Where are Erica Species Native to?

Though the majority of the erica species are endemic to South Africa (majority meaning 690 species), there are others that are native to the remaining parts of Africa, as well as Europe, the Mediterranean, and Madagascar.

Erica species often are dominated of dwarf-shrub habitats when growing in the wild, and are the most prominent species of acidic woodlands. They can exist in USDA zone 4 through 8.

Impressive and large erica shrub boasting hot pink flower clusters amongst evergreen needles

How do you Propagate a Heather Shrub?

Heather shrubs are truly the best. They are wonderfully easy to propagate and to maintain. Planting heather can be done by any gardener, and so here are a few tips to get ya started:

Pick a Spot

One of the trickiest things about planting is choosing the perfect spot for your new green friend. Remember that heathers prefer to exist in full sun conditions.

Another thing to keep in mind is soil type and quality. Heathers require well drained soil, and a way to ensure this is to plant your specimen in a raised bed or on a hillside.

Additionally, they require low nutrient soil that is acidic, usually between pH level 4.5-5.5. Achieve this by incorporating some peat moss into your soil mix.

Dig a Hole

The next step is to dig a hole! Holes should be at least 24 inches apart from one another – as these plants are wide spreading – and the hole should be twice as big as the root ball.

Break up the root ball before planting it in the hole to help ensure that the roots spread freely. Fill in your hole, and give the newly planted heather a good watering.

Maintain

When heathers are young, their soil should be kept moist. Mature plants should have moist soil during their growing season, but otherwise heathers are entirely drought tolerant, and barely need to be watered at all.

Side view of a small erica shrub growing hot pink flowers and evergreen needles in a sunny rock garden

What are the Growing Conditions of Heather Shrubs?

Soil Type

Though heathers can exist in many different soil types, they do prefer to live in soil that is high in acidity and well drained.

Incorporate peat moss into your potting mix to help raise the pH level to 4.5-5.5. You can also create a small mound of acidic soil to help ensure good drainage.

Sun Exposure

Heathers prefer to exist in full sun conditions, meaning that they receive a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight each day. Though they can tolerate partial shade, the color of their foliage and flowers can become less vibrant.

Water Level

During the first few growing seasons of a heather plant, its soil should be kept moist and well drained. It can be watered once or twice a week during its growing season, but once the plant is well established, it is entirely drought tolerant.

Hot pink heather flowers growing on an erica shrub in the sunlight

Temperature

This nifty evergreen shrub is wonderfully cold hardy, and they can survive in bitter winters. Their foliage will remain green in colder microclimates, but in warmer regions their flowers can remain in bloom nearly the entire year as well!

Fertilizer

Heathers actually prefer to exist in nutrient poor soil, and using fertilizer will not be helpful to them whatsoever. In some cases fertilizer can actually cause harm, so its best to avoid it all together!

Pruning

When it comes to heathers, pruning is entirely necessary to do. Pruning can be done either in the late fall or early spring immediately after the blooming season is over.

These plants respond very well to pruning, so really have-at-er! Trim below old flowers and try to maintain a rounded shape. Otherwise, these plants can become completely unruly!

Intolerances

If you hadn’t guessed already, heather plants are super awesome. They’re tolerant to almost everything (except for water logged, soggy soil) and require almost nothing for maintenance! They are also intolerant to alkaline soil.

Large white heather shrub growing clusters of white flowers in a large open landscape

How are Heather Plants Used?

Ornamental Plant

Heather plants are highly valued for their ornamental quality. They are grown as garden plants, facer plants, and landscape plants because of their attractive evergreen foliage, and dainty flowers that bring color to a space no matter the time of year.

They are planted as mass ground cover plants, they are often associated with various coniferous tree species, and they can often be found growing in a rock garden or in a window box.

Wildlife Ecology

Heather flower blossoms are often fed on by the larvae of various lepidopteran (moth and butterfly) species, including; the silver studded blue moth, the true lover’s knot moth, the emperor moth, the tiger moth, and the wormwood pug moth.

Additionally, these plants are often visited by pollinating sunbirds like the orange breasted sunburn and the southern double collared sunbird.

Huge erica shrub growing hot pink flower clusters in a large ornamental garden beside some tulips

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