“Winter heather is an attractive cold-season classic,” says Graham
Evergreen foliage and pretty, long-lasting flowers make winter heather a cold-season classic, but which of the 27 AGM ericas are on Graham Rice’s list?
IN the past few years the reputation of heathers has both improved and got a whole lot worse. On the plus side we’ve seen heathers increasingly offered everywhere from garden centres to petrol stations and discount supermarkets. The only problem is, these tend to be dyed in all manner of lurid colours.
Of course, it’s testament to the plants’ resilience that they keep that dyed growth for weeks. But those colours: puce, lime-green, electric-blue? As a friend (rightly) pointed out to me the other day: ‘Real gardeners absolutely hate them.’
The problem is that newcomers to winter gardening – and to heathers in particular – don’t realise that this is all a mad modern manifestation. These plants really do not need any artificial enhancement. There are hundreds of lovely heathers in a vast variety of foliage tints and flower colours. And you can have blooms – naturally, without dye – all the year round.
This winning blend of floral and foliage effects makes ericas invaluable for winter. The evergreen foliage adds colour during the colder months. And it’s not just green – those in bronze shades are especially useful as they set off the brightness of small bulbs so well. There are also varieties in gold and amber, with reddish tints, and even those whose foliage changes as the seasons come and go.
The blooms comprise dainty little bells that line the stems in winter, often for many months. Opening in reds, pinks and white, they provide food for insects that are out and about on sunny days.
So, that’s good foliage all year round, plus delightful flowers from November to March. The other feature of these hardy winter heathers that endears them to gardeners is that, unlike other heathers, they’re happy in all soils. The rest are fussy; they will sicken and fade
away in limy soils and, consequently, won’t grow in the majority of gardens across the country. Winter heathers will (although they will not thrive in chalk).
And finally, there’s no garden in the country for which winter heathers are too vigorous or grow too large. Yes, some reach 16-18in (40-50cm) in height, but most grow to little more than half that (8in/20cm). You can grow them in a windowbox, or try a single plant in a 4.5in (12cm) pot. They don’t need much room – all that bushiness narrows to a few wiry stems at the base, which will even fit into a small hole in paving.
Don’t let those heathers dyed in lurid shades colour your judgement – that’s not what these plants are about. In truth, they’re pretty yet tough – and there’s room for them in every garden. Literally.