Heaths and heathers of the moorlands — and the Rogue

I never saw a moor,

I never saw the sea;

Yet know I how the heather looks,

And what a wave must be.

— Emily Dickinson, 1890

Emily’s Dickinson’s poem emphasizes the power of imagination, sometimes augmented by reading. I’ve never seen a moor, either, but I certainly visualized one when I read Emily Brontë’s novel, "Wuthering Heights" (1847), which is set in the harsh, isolated moorlands of Northern England.

“In winter nothing more dreary, in summer nothing more divine” is the way Brontë describes the moors. It's a place where “bold swells of heath” appear ghostly in winter fog, but the purple flowers scent the air and “bees hum dreamily” in the summer sun.

Both Emilys may have been referring to Calluna vulgaris, commonly called Scotch heather or ling, which is a popular ornamental plant in modern Rogue Valley gardens. The shrubby groundcover can grow up to two-feet tall and sends out summer and fall-blooming flowers in soft shades of purple, pink and white. The heather’s evergreen leaves are scaly, and the foliage of some varieties turns bright orange or bronze in winter. Calluna vulgaris thrives in acidic soils (pH 5.0) like those of the moors of Yorkshire.

What I have in my front yard berm is another popular landscaping plant, Erica carnea or mountain/alpine heath, which looks similar to heather but blooms winter through spring. There are other Erica species that bloom in the summer and fall like Calluna. I have 5-6 heath plants that have year-round green leaves, needlelike but soft, and bloom an abundance of purple or white umbels on the end of each stem from December through April. There are many other shades of Erica flowers, some of them quite vibrant pinks.

I value my Ericas because they provide visual interest in my winter garden, as well as forage and shelter sites for overwintering pollinators. Unlike Calluna and other Erica species, Erica carnea tolerates a bit of shade and a bit more alkaline soil, as long as it drains well.

Since they were planted five years ago, my Ericas have grown up to 20 inches tall and up to 24 inches wide. Those that receive full sun are bigger than plants that are shaded by trees in the afternoon. The partially shaded plants have prettier dark-green foliage, but they don’t bloom as profusely.

The winter heath planted in my berm looks good with colorful grasses, conifers and rockery perennial flowers. I could also plant other Erica species and Calluna vulgaris so I have heath and heathers blooming all year round.

So far, my winter heaths have been virtually free of insect pests and disease problems, and I have had to do very little pruning for them to keep their mounded shape. Once established, heaths and heathers don’t need much watering.

I’ve noticed fewer flowers this year, so I will rejuvenate the plants with some ericaceous (acidic) fertilizer this winter. In spring, I’ll add a few inches of compost to the soil around the root zone. After the bloom period, I’ll cut the stems off just above the old wood to stimulate new growth.

It’s important to prune shortly after flowering stops, though, because new flower buds form quickly for next year. I’ll also trim off dead or damaged stems, which will help keep air circulating through the plants.

The Heather Society has a helpful “Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heather” at www.heathersociety.org. The guide includes brief descriptions of several kinds of heaths and heathers, as well as planting instructions.

Every time I look at my winter blooming heath, I think about Emily Brontë’s Catherine, who dreamed she went to heaven but was homesick for the moors. She says, “I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy.”

I never saw a moor, yet I know how a heather looks — and I can imagine.

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at: http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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