Ericas can give spectacular winter display
For colour in your garden, have you tried growing the winter-flowering heaths? Brightly coloured bells cover the bushes during the cooler months for a magnificent fanfare.
The true heaths belong to the Erica family and there are some 700 species within the genus. Though the ones we are more familiar with are Erica carnea, Erica melanthera, Erica cerinthoides, Erica x darleyensis, Erica vagans, Erica erigina, and one or two others.
Depending on the species, and the cultivar, flowers may be white, pink, purple or red. There are hundreds of cultivars to choose from – your local garden centre will have several, though a specialist nursery, such as Blue Mountain Nurseries, in Tapanui, will have many more.
Most ericas are hardy plants that withstand frosts and snow, though when young, some may succumb to frost damage on their tips. For the first year it’s a good idea to protect from frost.
Many of the ericas are compact, like Erica carnea (winter heath), which grows 20-25cm high. Some are much taller growing, like Erica vagans (Cornish heath), which grows up to 80cm high, and Erica cerinthoides, which reaches 1-1.5m high.
Erica carnea makes a great ground cover for cold-climate gardens. When planted en masse, the colourful bells look spectacular. There are numerous cultivars in varying flower and foliage colours. For example, we have Erica carnea ‘Springwood White’, which has pearly-white tubular flowers with brown/red tips in winter.
Conversely, there is Erica carnea ‘Myretoun Ruby’, with its copious racemes of deep rose-pink flowers from late winter to mid- spring. Both these plants grow 20-30cm high, with a spread of 40-60cm wide.
Erica cerinthoides ‘Red’ will brighten the winter garden with its luminous red blooms on the tips of its stems. This cultivar grows around 80cm high, maybe higher if left unpruned, but pruning after flowering is a must for decent flowering the following year. Cut the foliage back by half after flowering.
Erica melanthera ‘Ruby Shepherd’ has reddish pink flowers and grows to a height of 75cm. Erica melanthera ‘Improved’
has bright lipstick pink flowers and grows up to 80cm high.
I’m a fan of white flowers, so something like Erica erigena ‘Alba’, which grows 50cm high, and Erica colorans ‘White Delight’ suit me. The latter produces tall spikes of showy white tubular flowers that age pink. The stems can reach up to 1m high.
For foliage colour, look for Erica cinerea ‘Golden Drop’, a lowgrowing hardy plant that grows up to 30cm high. The foliage puts on a striking display in winter then it turns a vibrant rusty orange-red. The flowers come in summer – a mass of rosy purple bells.
Ericas require an acid soil, though they will tolerate slightly alkaline soil if fed with an acid fertiliser. They’re also great in containers and hanging baskets.
Bright spots: Heaths make for a colourful winter display.