There is a wealth of excellent articles out on the websphere highlighting showstopper plants to bring life, colour, scent and maybe even a bit of magic to your garden on a particular month or moment. I may we’ll write some of these articles as well. In fact, I will almost certainly do that, but I’m a champion of the underdog and while the great underdogs occasionally win the big prizes (Goran Ivanišević), I have long been content to support the great talents that have perhaps won fewer ’grand stage’ events than their skill deserves (Jimmy White). Nice to include two of my sporting favourites there.
So, here seems like the best place to champion worthwhile plants that perhaps don’t get the attention that they deserve. Winners in every respect, just not as heralded or bestowed with awards and plaudits as they should be.
Winter is the one season where we focus our attention on finding great plants for the season, as fewer plants flower in the UK at this time than any other. While flowers are important, we needn’t look hard to find non-floral interest during this season. Berries, cones, nuts and fruit, winter stems and bark and evergreen foliage including winter conifer colours, all have great merit and should be considered. That said, I am going to champion the deeply unfashionable, but brilliantly robust, floriferous and charming Erica as my plant of the moment.
Worth stressing here that if you have Erica (Winter Heathers) in your garden or even if you just like and admire them, I am not suggesting that you are unfashionable. If anything, you are an enlightened soul and I applaud your vision. I am saying though, that after their tremendous popularity from the 1950-1970’s they have struggled to be considered relevant with modern gardeners. Labouring under the weight of their previous success, they are long overdue a renaissance.
When I set out in the world of horticulture it was working in a local garden centre in my home village of Crail in Fife. I learned a great many plants there and took an early shine to Heathers as they seemed pretty bulletproof and were colourful. Over time and with a horticultural education I slowly but surely stopped liking them, recognising them as a symbol of a bygone plant palette now firmly replaced. It took years for me to come around to liking them again, largely as the result of no longer being able to deny their intrinsic beauty and more importantly their value as a garden plant.
Since my re-enlightenment on these valuable garden delights, I have found myself looking out for them on sunny walks from December through to April. In the sun, their tiny, papery petals glow and when partnered with a lighter foliage they are visible from distances that such a petite bloom usually would disappear in.
Ericas 'March Seedling', Kramer's Red' and 'John Pook'
Where more recent Heather breeding has focused on the summer heathers of Calluna and especially on creating new foliage colours, little work has been done on Erica carnea, our native E. cinerea and the hybrid species E. x darleyensis since the 1970’s. In fact many of the varieties are that we know and use to this day were introduced between the 1850’s and 1970’s. Barring a handful of new foliage or flower colours and some double flowered forms, we are largely working with the same Ericas that we have always had and For good reason. Trouble and disease free in the main. Hardy, durable and easy going. Tough to kill and tough to beat in terms of effort required against return.
There are hundreds of varieties and in the region of 700 other species to explore, not least of all one of my favourites, the sweetly scented, May flowering Tree Heathers of Erica arborea and others (E. arborea var. alpina pictured below). All are pretty good doers and I encourage you to have a try with them. I‘m not going to name varieties to consider as they are all good. Find one, or a mix that you like and experiment with them in your planting schemes.
One last thought; Heathers are all thought of as Ericaceous (Acid Soil (pH6.9 and lower) Loving) and with a Genus name of Erica, you would be forgiven for thinking that they would need this more than other acid lovers. Erica carnea and x darleyensis cultivars are, however, surprisingly lime-tolerant (happy in chalky (pH7.1 and above) soils), though I would not recommend them for shallow chalk, where they will struggle at best.
So, I give you the humble Heather. Great for early insects, great for colour, great for groundcover and great for this moment.
Mixed Heathers with Juniperus and Lonicera pileata foliage.