Updated: Sep 7
One minor regret I have from my college years studying landscape architecture was not taking enough photos while studying for a semester abroad in the United Kingdom. For context, this time predates smart phones, which today are mere extensions of our hands. Back then, when we all hopped on a train from Grantham to Edinburgh then on to Inverness, it probably never occurred to me to dig into my backpack, set up my camera, and hope for at least one shot to come out clear as the train bumpity-bump-bumped along the rails. There is, however, one image burned into my mind; I just cannot pinpoint exactly where it was along the way.
The air was brisk and damp as expected in autumn. I stood on the noisy platform between two rail cars catching some clean air. As I looked out into the passing landscape, all I could see were rolling mounds of heather turning russet from the cold. Winter was coming. Between the vegetated masses were cracks in the earth, nearly black in contrast to the heather, with water rippling down dark stone. It was too fast to really know, but I thought I was looking at bedrock, leading me to believe the soil depth was shallow. With very few trees to interrupt the scenery, I felt clarity, peace, and a sense of home, wondering if my ancestors had similar experiences. But I digress...oh so pleasantly. I hope to return one day, to see if that same vibe carries with me.
Scotch heather, if you have not guessed already, is native to Scotland, Britain, and as Sunset describes, "dots Europe clear to Asia Minor" (p.213). I have totally bought into the romantic mysteries and often foggy veils of the Moors, heathlands, and even bogs. No more digressions here, but that description should give readers an idea of what environments support Calluna vulgaris to thrive: wet, misty, cool, and if I assessed the landscape correctly, shallow, fast draining soils. The closest simulation we have in Northern California is along our drippy coastlines. Inland, there are challenges.
I see them as impulse buys in retail nurseries, starting in early summer when Scotch heathers are in bloom through autumn as the leaves begin to turn. Consumers will pot them up or plant them in the ground with mixed success, less so in hot areas with heavy clay soil. To satisfy their needs, Scotch heathers need regular moisture, fast draining soil, and a cool region that is possible to replicate in planters with afternoon shade. They provide a unique texture and coloring along the ground plane, so in the right circumstances, C. vulgaris adds a beautiful, almost impressionistic expression to a landscape. Wanting to try but unwilling to take the risk? Look into another genus, Erica, as introduced by Lloyd Eighme in Pacific Horticulture.
Botanical Name: Calluna vulgaris
Calluna: Traditional Latin name for alder tree
Vulgaris: Red, as in the interior hardwood
Common Name: Scotch heather
Family Name: Ericaceae
Origin: Scotland, Britain, Europe, Asia Minor
Positioning: Foreground (small cultivars), background (large cultivars) hillsides
Garden Themes: Rock, coastal, container, conifer mix, pollinator
Uses: Border, mass, ground cover, erosion control,
Type: Evergreen shrub
Form: Mound, spreading, mat
Size: 2' tall by 2' wide (cultivars vary)
Outstanding Feature(s): Texture, flower
Stem: Brown, pubescent turning gray and glabrous with age. Flexible
Arrangement: Decussate and tightly overlapping; scale-like
Color: Dark green, often turning bronze or orange when weather turns cold
Flower: Summer into Autumn. Tiny but showy one-sided racemes in shades of pink or lavender
Fruit: Autumn. Inconspicuous pubescent capsules with four compartments holding numerous seeds
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 1A, 2-6, 15-17
USDA Zones: 4-6
Light: Sun to partial shade
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate
Texture: Sand, loam, rocky
Moisture Retention: Well-drained
Branch Strength: N/A
Insects: Spider mites, oystershell scale
Disease: Stem and root rot
Heather ale was made in Scotland for thousands of years – archaeologists have found traces of an alcoholic drink made from heather on shards of pottery more than 3,000 years old!
~The Scottish Wildlife Trust
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Eighme, L. (n.d.). "Heathers for Warm Gardens." Pacific Horticulture, Berkeley. Accessed on September 4, 2021, from https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/heathers-for-warm-gardens/.
Extension Gardener. "Calluna vulgaris." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on September 4, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/calluna-vulgaris/.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Calluna vulgaris." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on September 4, 2021, from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=279934.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on September 4, 2021.
Weeds of Australia. "Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull." Lucid Central, Queensland. Accessed on September 4, 2021 from https://keyserver.lucidcentral.org/weeds/data/media/Html/calluna_vulgaris.htm.
Heather in landscape: "Walk along flowering Scottish heather. West Highland Way" by Tatters is licensed under Creative Commons.