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Evergreen, Shrubs, Flowers

Heaths are grown for small, needlelike leaves and abundant, usually small flowers that may be bell-shaped, urn-shaped, or tubular. By choosing varieties of both heaths and their close relative heather (Calluna) carefully, you can have color year-round.

The hardiest heaths, native to northern and western Europe, are widely used as shrubs or groundcover plants in cool-summer, humid regions of California and the Pacific Northwest. Fanciers sometimes plant the shortest types in masses for a multicolored Persian-carpet effect. Good on slopes.

South African species are tender to frost and about as hardy as fuchsias; where temperatures dip below 28°F/–2°C, it is safest to grow them in containers and provide shelter.

A third group of heaths, native to the Mediterranean and southern Europe, is intermediate in hardiness.

Taller heaths can be used as screens. All attract bees.

Heaths demand excellent drainage, and most need acid soil. Sandy soil amended with organic matter such as peat moss and compost is ideal; heavy clay is usually fatal. Feeding with an annual sifting of compost is usually sufficient, but if plants lose color, feed lightly with acid plant food in early spring. When it comes to watering, be careful and consistent. Heaths will not tolerate standing water or absolute dryness. To keep plants looking neat, shear or cut off faded flower spikes. Don’t cut back into leafless wood; new growth may not resprout.

Erica arborea
Erica arborea

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Erica arborea

This upright, dense shrub or tree can grow to 10–20 ft. tall, 8–10 ft. wide, with one or many trunks, and often a heavy burl at the plant’s base. It is slow growing. Performs well in Zones 4–6 in years between big freezes. Burls are the “briar” used for making pipes. Foliage is bright green; new growth is lighter green. White, fragrant flowers appear in spring.

Erica arborea alpina

This makes a dense, upright shrub to 6 ft. tall and 3–4 ft. wide. Foliage is bright green; new growth lighter green. The plant is slow to reach blooming age, but is then free blooming. It is slightly hardier than E. arborea.

Erica carnea (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)
Erica carnea (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)

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Erica carnea

Dwarf to 6–16 in. high and 2 ft. wide. Upright branchlets rise from prostrate main branches. Medium green leaves. Rosy red flowers in winter to spring. Unsightly unless pruned every year. This species and its varieties tolerate neutral or slightly alkaline soil. Unless described otherwise, the following varieties grow about 6–8 in. high and 1 1/2 ft. wide. ‘December Red’ has pink to reddish purple flowers in winter. Early blooming. ‘Myretoun Ruby’ has dark green leaves and very striking magenta to crimson blooms. ‘Pink Spangles’ has shell pink to deep pink flowers. ‘Ruby Glow’ has dark green leaves and among the richest, deep ruby red flowers. ‘Springwood White’ is a tough, fast-growing heath with a neat habit, 8 in. high and 14 in. wide. It bears white flowers opening from creamy buds among light green foliage. ‘Springwood Pink’ is similar but has pink flowers and deep green foliage. ‘Vivellii’ has dark green leaves that turn bronzy red in winter and carmine-red flowers. Interesting for seasonal change in foliage color as well as for bloom.

Erica cinerea

European native. This shrublet grows to 1 ft. high, 2 1/2 ft. wide, forming a low mat. Dark green, dainty leaves give rise to purple summer flowers. Good groundcover.

Erica tetralix

Upright grower to 1 ft. tall, 2 ft. wide. Dark green foliage is silvery beneath. Rosy pink flowers open in summer, early fall. Best if given moist, acid, well-drained soil, and afternoon shade.

Erica vagans

Bushy and open, this heath grows to 2–3 ft. high and wide and has bright green foliage. Summer flowers come in white, shell pink, or rose. Robust and hardy.

Erica x darleyensis

This hybrid grows to 1 ft. tall 2 ft. wide, and is covered with pink or white flowers in winter and spring and has medium green foliage. It is represented by several excellent varieties. 

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