The Mountain Gardener: A colorful plant in drab winter months
by Jan Nelson
Dec 06, 2012 | 2155 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Christmas heather, which is actually a heath or erica, is blooming now in this area. Courtesy photo
Christmas heather, which is actually a heath or erica, is blooming now in this area. Courtesy photo
Scotch heather tends to bloom during the summer in Mendocino. Courtesy photo
Scotch heather tends to bloom during the summer in Mendocino. Courtesy photo

Any plant that blooms during the shortest and darkest days of the year is a sure bet to get my attention. Even when the weather is cold and rainy, Christmas heather will brave the elements and keep on blooming.

Along with their relatives the true heathers, Christmas heathers are great additions to the garden. This variety is often grown as a holiday gift plant, because the flowers last a long time.

Technically, Christmas heather is not a heather but a heath from the family Ericacaea, which includes our native Western azalea, gaultheria, madrone and manzanita.

Heaths, also known as ericas, are mostly native to northern and western Europe. There are also a few varieties from South Africa, but these are not as hardy in cold temperatures.

One South African variety called Christmas heather (Erica canaliculata) is an evergreen, deer-resistant shrub that reaches about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It tolerates heavy soil with little or occasional irrigation and thrives best if not irrigated too much in the summer.

Rosea is a popular winter-flowering pink variety, while Rubra blooms with deep pink flowers. Both grow well on slopes.

Scotch heather (Calluna vulgaris) generally starts blooming in midsummer. The buds never open, so they remain colorful from August until the hard frost. Plants are often grown close together in rock gardens, making a colorful display of patchwork color. Fields of mauve, pink and rose can be found all over Scotland and England, where the shrub grows wild.

There are more than 700 cultivars now available, with foliage in chartreuse, yellow, russet and gray that is as showy as the flowers. Foliage colors intensify in winter and provide as much visual impact as the summer flowers.

Heathers are not too particular about soil fertility, but they need good drainage. They are a good choice for the top of retaining walls and banks and in raised planters where the soil drains well. Acidic soils around the edges of a conifer grove would be ideal. They blend nicely with grasses in wild gardens and do well in large pots.

Where heathers grow wild, they were traditionally used to create household brooms and dusters. They were also used to pack crates of whiskey and other breakables for shipping, resulting in their early spread around the world. In this way, they found their way to North America along with traditional brooms.

Flowers of all heaths and heathers make good cut flowers, lasting for weeks, whether the stems are immersed in water or not.

Both Christmas heather and Scotch heather have shallow root systems, so be careful not to plant them too deeply. Good drainage is important; if your soil is heavy clay, amend it with compost and peat moss or create a raised bed. Otherwise, they prefer rocky or unamended soils and little fertilizer.

Water heather plants regularly during the first year until the root zone has become established. Also, top-dress with wood chips or other mulch.

To prevent plants from becoming leggy and woody, prune right after they finish blooming. Be careful not to prune into bare wood, but rather right below the dead blossoms.

By choosing varieties of heaths and the closely related heathers, you can have color year-round. The sight of these delicate blossoms in the drabbest months of the year is welcome in any garden.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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