Winter heath may flower as early as January.
If you desperately need a little color to cheer up your otherwise dreary landscape in the coldest months, consider Scotch heath (Erica carnea), also known as winter heath or snow heath for the season in which it flowers. Keep in mind that it isn’t the same plant as heather, which belongs to the Calluna genus and generally blooms in early summer and early autumn, though the two are closely related.
As you can see in the antique illustration below, the flower of winter heath tends to be urn shaped, pinched in at the base and tip. That of heather is more cup or bell-like.
Previously known as Erica herbacea and native to the European Alps, Erica carnea generally is recommended only for USDA zones 5 through 7. You probably can stretch that to include zone 8 as well if you choose the right cultivars—such as ‘Pirbright Rose’ and ‘Eileen Porter.’
In the warmer areas of its range, winter heath can bloom as early as January. In more snowy regions, it may wait until early spring to perform, though it is capable of flowering beneath the white stuff. It generally will continue to bloom for six to eight weeks whether undercover or not!
Carnea means flesh-colored, and pink does seem to be the most common hue of the flowers, though white cultivars are available as well. Those called “red”—such as the ‘December Red’ pictured below—appear to be what most of us would describe as “dark pink” instead. On some cultivars, the needle-like foliage also is ornamentally hued. ‘Aurea,’ for example, glows chartreuse, ‘Anne Sparkes’ gold, and ‘Vivellii’ bronze.
Erica grows best in full sun, in very well-drained and somewhat acidic soil of low fertility, such as on the moorland so prevalent in Gothic novels! However, it can tolerate a little alkalinity better than most of its relatives will.
If your soil is heavy clay, you probably should lighten it with peat and sand before planting heath, or the plant could succumb to root rot. It is a low grower, usually not exceeding 16 inches in height, and should be trimmed back a bit just after it flowers.
Don’t wait too long to do that—since any pruning commenced in July or later is liable to shear off next year’s buds—and be careful not to cut all the way back into old wood. Because it is a small plant, Erica carnea can be a good choice for winter containers as well as flowerbeds.
If you wish to grow winter heath from seeds, press those seeds into the surface of a damp and fast-draining seed-starting mix. Place the container in which you planted them inside a plastic bag in your refrigerator for about a month. Afterwards, keep the container in a bright, cool place—such as under basement grow lights--at about 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit until the seeds germinate, which can take up to a couple months.
Since winter heaths don’t always come true from seed, it might be a better idea to propagate them via layered cuttings. In fact, shoots lying prostrate may form roots themselves without any help from you, and can be separated from the original plant after they do so.
So you actually can have your own little stretch of moorland without all the sturm and drang of those Gothic novels I mentioned earlier. After all, a tortured hero/villain type such as Heathcliff would shortly begin to wear on your nerves, but an actual heath cliff could be charming!
Photos: The banner image is by [email protected], the 'December Red' image by growin from the Dave's Garden PlantFiles, and the containers image by R. [email protected] The antique image is by A. Peter from Botanische Wandtafeln, courtesy of plantillustrations.org.