Heather generally refers to a group of evergreen plants in the Ericaceae family, most often: Calluna (Scotch heather or ling), Erica (heath) and Daboecia (Irish Heath). While not native to North America, many heathers are well suited to our mountains of western North Carolina.
Many gardeners do not think about the versatility of heathers. They are evergreen, with delicate foliage, woody stems, and small long lasting flowers. Some individuals find these plants to be finicky, but once established they should be long-lived. All heathers do well in acidic soil amended with with organic matter.
Calluna vulgaris, is the true heather and perhaps the hardiest and most varied - from small tufts to spreading ‘carpeters’ and upright shrubs. Flowers in white and every shade of pink, mauve, lavender and red last for 6-8 weeks beginning late summer/early fall. Foliage is scaly, rather than needle-like and often changes to spectacular shades of yellow, orange, gold, bronze and red during the colder months. Callunas must have full sun, acid soil and good drainage. They must not be allowed to dry out their first year, but after that are drought tolerant. Hardy to zone 4 or 5.
Only a handful of the 800 species of Erica are commonly cultivated. The two easiest to grow also happen to be the two winter-bloomers:
Erica carnea or winter heath is a low, fast-growing and spreading plant with needle-like leaves and bell-shaped flowers. Its foliage is not as colorful as the Callunas’. Flowers in shades from white to pink, red, magenta, mauve appear in early to mid-winter and last well into spring. New spring growth often is a lovely contrasting color. Foliage is yellow green to very deep green. Tolerates more shade and more soil types than other heathers.
Erica x darleyensis is another very easy-to-grow species, quite similar to E. carnea, but taller and bushier. Most varieties have pink or cream tips in spring and bronze or dark green foliage. Buds form in late summer or very early fall, and some cultivars begin to bloom as early as late September, lasting into mid-spring. Flowers open pale and deepen as the season progresses. These plants should survive in zone 6 with some protection.
Heathers would be a good addition to any perennial border, rock garden, or as an accent plant with conifers. See website below for more information.
Parts taken from honeybeesandheather.com