Heather

'Tib,' 'Firefly'
& 'Silver Knight'
Scottish Heathers


"And we'll all go together
To pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will you go, lassie, go."

-traditional Scottish

   

It's painful to include pages at this website that in essence outline my failures, but sometimes screwing up can be even more of a learning experience than succeeding, hence worth sharing, so long as my ego can bear up to such confessions.

I had mistakenly believed heathers are easy to grow, & that the least expert of gardeners ought to be able to have good luck with them, so felt badly that to date they've evaded doing their best for me. In a sun-garden where herbs do swell, heathers have dried out, exhausted by too much sun. In a better watered location they become stringy & unappealing & one even rotted & died.

It may be only unforseeable bad luck with my having tried too few specimens to draw any broad conclusions, but my former sense that they are easy little evergreen shrubs has been supplanted with a greater sense that they die out of most landscapes if highly specific needs are not met.

The cultivar of Calluna vulgaris shown in the photo above is 'Tib' (sometimes incorrectly 'Tibb') but was labeled when we obtained it as 'Mrs. Tibb,' which was incorrect despite such an official-looking printed label.

It was initially planted in a sun-garden with very low-maintenance plants, but come summer it was fading away rather than thriving due to too much sun & too few waterings. So at some point I dug it up along with another heather that was planted beside it, 'Silver Knight,' & stuck them both in a spot that would get a bit more water. This location was apparantly too humousy & nitrogen-rich for heathers, or may have stayed a bit too wet in winter; the two subshrubs still seemed stressed.

'Silver Knight' had pale lavender flowers with greyish-white foliage that darkened to purplish in winter. It was supposed to stand upright like a knight in armor, & did so when first purchased, but in the location I'd moved it too in moist semi-shade, it got increasingly leggy & began to "creep" toward fuller sunlight. It looked horrible so I cut it back to start over, but it never grew back to any positive appearance, so in time I gave up on it. It was eventually discarded as clinging too feebly to life & simply never looking well.

'Tib' by contrast began to recover in the new location. Though planted right next to the one that failed, 'Tib' was perhaps just enough further out in the sun to have a better chance. It improved awfully slowly & took a good two years to stop looking crappy. The September 2003 photo above is as good as it has ever looked.

The individual traits of 'Tib' include its short, spreading, compact structure, with dark reddish-purple double-flowers along slim stems. The flowers begin about July, are at their height in September, & continue as late as November. It received the Award of Garden Merit for it's long-proven value as a garden ornamental.

'Tib' is one of the earliest double-bloom varieties ever found, & was first collected by Isobel Young on a Pentland Hills heath near Edinburgh. It is called 'Tib' because that is a nickname for Isobel.

It seems that 'Tib' was the hardiest of the three cultivars considered here. It has been a success in the long run, but I failed with the third cultivar, 'Firefly,' another recipient of the Award of Garden Merit. I planted two of them on a dryish cliff edge where sedums were doing fabulously & where I hoped sufficient water would run down from a well-watered garden higher on the slope.

The first year 'Firefly' did well enough, though never as wonderfully colored as when first purchased. The two specimens had a strong upright habit with mauve flowers in early Autumn. The leaves are an attractive terracotta in summer, & ought to darken to brick-red in winter, though they only reached a stage of muddy ochre in our garden.

Their second year (or perhaps it was the third year come to think of it) there was a record-hot summer, & too little water reached that far down the cliff-edge. Nothing else suffered, but the 'Firefly' dried up. In Autumn 2003, it still looked like both of the 'Fireflies' were done for, though I've left them in case they do recover.

So two out of three cultivars, three out of four specimens, I killed. My moderate luck with 'Tib' & poor luck with 'Firefly' & 'Silver Knight' long discouraged me from shopping for heathers, preferring plants that make me feel extremely competent.

Despite my slow learning curve with them, I now realize that I made a serious error in assuming they were ultra-hardy by nature, failing to do adequate research before hand. I have recently read more deeply about heathers & believe next time I will know what to do for them, which is mainly to bear in mind they do have specific needs & to establish quickly must be treated well & not expected to thrive in just any old empty spot available. The things to remember, & which I previously had variously failed to provide for them adequately, were these factors:

1) Scottish heathers do not like ever to dry out entirely & it was a mistake to regard them as drought-hardy.

2) They also hate overwatering. Moderate moisture with sharp drainage is required.

3) They cannot be placed in nitrogen-rich soils or they decline rapidly. They should not be placed anywhere near plants that are going to be fertilized at intervals, for heathers have an immediate negative response to fertilizers that include nitrogen. It is better to fertilize, if at all, with leafmold or bone meal or thin autumn topcoating of compost.

4) Though liking a great deal of sun, they do have their limits in droughty summers, plus they desicate with winter wind exposures. Hence they shouldn't be too greatly exposed in the landscape. They appreciate a small amount of sheltering that provides both windbreak for winter & a tiny bit of shading for the hottest days of summer, though no shadier than "bright" shade.
Much the same should be kept in mind for Bellheathers of the genus Erica. These four principles in mind, I began to be certain I'd do better with heathers in the future, & finally worked up the gumption to try again, starting with the cultivar 'Wickwar Flame.'

   



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