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Heather or Erika (Erica) is the eponymous genus for the family of heather plants (Ericaceae). Of the over 800 species, most are native to South Africa, only a few in the Middle East or Europe. They grow at sea level up to the alpine stage.
Heathers are evergreen, usually compact dwarf shrubs, some species grow but also tree-like and can be ten feet high. The leaves are in whorled, rarely opposite or scattered. The flowers are usually up to ten millimeters in size and have a double perianth with sepals, crown and stamens that protrude from the corolla. The color palette of flowers ranges from white to pink and crimson to purple. Heather herbs thrive best in sunny locations, but also tolerate half shady places. They occur mainly on sandy or stony soils.
In Europe, among other things, the snow or winter heather (Erica carnea). It has the greatest importance as a garden plant and grows in the Alps to 2700 meters altitude. It forms up to 30 centimeters high dwarf shrubs. Their evergreen leaves are needle-shaped, the inflorescences consist of many small flowers that are pink or reddish colored and about eight millimeters long. The snow-heath flowers from January to April and is an important early bee pasture. Although it copes with most non-heavy soil types, it prefers calcareous soil in contrast to other heather plants. The plants are offered in numerous varieties.
The South African bell-heath 'Paola' (Erica gracilis) impresses with its bell-shaped flowers
Another popular garden plant is the bell-heath (Erica gracilis), which originates from South Africa. It does not tolerate lime and freezes during severe frosts. The Cornwall or Summer Heath (Erica vagans) flowers from July to September. It is distributed in the southwest of England, but also on the Atlantic coasts to Spain. Their eight-millimeter-long flowers together form an 8 to 15 centimeters long, slender inflorescence. It thrives best on sandy or stony soils and often occurs near the coast.
Also native to Europe is the gray heather (Erica cinerea). It grows as an evergreen dwarf shrub and grows up to 60 centimeters high. Their flowering time ranges from early summer to early autumn. The racemose inflorescence contains numerous flowers in different shades of pink. It is also suitable as an ornamental plant.
The tree-heath (Erica arborea) can grow up to six meters high and grows among other things in the Mediterranean area. In the laurel forests of the Canary Island of La Gomera, this species grows up to 20 meters high and thrives particularly well on acidic rocks. Their bulbous roots, which can reach a diameter of up to 40 cm, are used to make tobacco pipes or knife handles. Due to mineral deposits, the wood is very hard.
By the way: The summer or broom heath (Calluna vulgaris), which characterizes the landscape of the Lüneburg Heath, is not Erica, but forms its own genus Calluna. But she also belongs to the heather family. Unlike most Erica species, the broom heath is deciduous and flowers in late summer.
The heath herbs, which play a role in garden design, can be counted on one hand. All species work best when planted in the heather garden larger areas. Ideal partners are other dwarf shrubs such as the broom heath, conifers such as juniper and pine or flowering plants such as the rhododendron. In winter and spring, from January to May, the varieties of English heather (Erica darleyensis) and the snow or winter heather (Erica carnea) bloom in white, pink or red. They are good surface cover for sunny to partially shaded locations.
In summer, the moor or bells heath (Erica tetralix), the Cornwall heath (Erica vagans) and gray heather (Erica cinerea) bloom. They are about 30 inches high and wide and can be used as groundcover in smaller or larger groups. Often they are planted in heather beds. The bell-heath (Erica gracilis) blooms from September to December and is therefore mainly offered in autumn. It is not hardy, even if individual nights with temperatures just below zero degrees are cope. Often one sets bells heath in trays and window boxes. In addition, they are suitable for the design of beds and for grave planting.
The Cornwall heath 'Valerie Proudey' is located in the southwest of England and flourishes from July to September
The best planting time is when the nurseries have the respective species in the assortment. It should be noted that some species thrive only on acid soil.Others prefer lime-containing sites, but can also cope with normal, humus-rich garden soil. The planting area should be loosened up well and dig the hole so deep that the root ball is covered half an inch with garden soil. Dip the root ball in water before planting and water thoroughly during the first few weeks. If you want to use English heather as surface cover, you put five to seven plants, in snow heaths eight to ten per square meter.
It is important to cut back heaths regularly to keep them compact and not bevelled from below. The English Heath and the Snow Heath are cut regularly with the hedge trimmer after flowering in late May. The Cornwall heath is cut off annually below the previous year's flowering shoot. The bell-heath does not need to be cut.
Heather herbs should never dry out completely. It is essential to water in periods of rain, especially before the first frosts. In the spring, heather herbs are supplied with fertilizer. Compost or slow-release fertilizer promote growth. Species that thrive only on acid soil receive special fertilizers, such as rhododendron fertilizer
In severe frost without snow cover covers partially hardy heather herbs such as the tree heath and the gray heather with brushwood, fir branches or fleece. The Cornwall Heath is relatively frost hardy and needs to be protected only with prolonged frosts with fir green. Even the snow heath, which tolerates temperatures down to -30 degrees, should be protected from strong winter sun and wind, so it does not dry out.
Heather herbs can be propagated by cuttings. These are cut in summer, stuck in the ground and kept as evenly moist. The own propagation is only worthwhile with rare varieties, since the plants are very inexpensive.
Diseases and pests
Sudden wilting indicates fungal infection. Diseased plants should be quickly removed and disposed of with household waste. As prevention, it is recommended to avoid waterlogging. In addition, the larvae of black-eared weevils can cause damage to the roots. But the beetle seldom eats the young shoots.