Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Lawns, Ground Cover, & Wildflowers

Winter Heaths

by Alice Knight

It goes without saying that heaths are colorful, versatile, and useful year-round evergreen shrubs. But you may not know the winter-blooming heaths, which add a splash of color to gardens throughout winter. These hardy, low-growing plants produce a wide variety of bell-shaped or tubular pale pink, reddish purple, and magenta flowers for what seems like an eternity -- October and November into April and May. And the heath foliage itself paints your landscape with colors ranging from pale greens and soft yellows to light shades of copper, bronze, and gold.

Properly selected and planted, winter-blooming heaths grow almost anywhere, from Maine to Florida and Alaska to Hawaii. They work well in borders, with other small conifers and shrubs, in rock gardens, or perhaps best of all, by themselves. In northern snowbelt areas, (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 6), heaths actually bloom under the snow, their flowers revealed as snow recedes in early spring. If you live in these regions, choose varieties that are in bloom near the beginning or end of the snowfall season (see list of varieties below).

Heaths (cousins of the true Scotch heathers, Calluna vulgaris) include three groups of winter-blooming varieties and more than a dozen other summer-blooming types. All are members of the large Ericaceae family, which also includes rhododendrons, azaleas, and blueberries.

Winter Hardiness

Hardiest and most readily available of the winter-blooming heaths are varieties of Erica carnea. With winter protection many varieties thrive in zone 4 (to -25° F.) and sometimes even in parts of zone 3. The bushier E. darleyensis varieties are usually hardy in zone 5 (-20° F.). Least hardy are varieties of E. erigena, which are more difficult to obtain and are usually hardy only in zones 7 (0° F.).

Spring Heath

Also called snow heather, spring heath (Erica carnea) is native to mountainous areas of eastern Europe. There, plants thrive in coniferous woods and on stony slopes, and in spite of harsh winterconditions. Their prostrate habit and fast growth make them excellent plants for a rock garden, on a slope, filling in a heather (Calluna) garden; they also make long-blooming companions for other plants. Most of the nearly 100 named varieties are low and carpeting, 6 to 9 inches tall with a spread of 2 feet or less. Some bushier varieties may reach a foot in height and spread about 2 feet in diameter. Well-established plants require very little attention and form a weed-smothering carpet.

Some varieties start blooming as early as November, and others early in the new year. Most finish flowering in late May, and within days begin to set buds for the next season.

Blossom colors vary from white through pink and lavender to deep reddish purple and magenta. Many darken with age to give a bicolor effect. Foliage ranges from golden yellow and pale green to deep or grayish green, sometimes with streaks of gold on the leaves. Some kinds sport cream or pink tips on new growth. Flower buds form in summer but may take as long as nine months to bloom. Actual blooming times depend a lot on the climate. When winters are mild, flowers tend to open up to two months earlier than when winters are harsh.

Microclimates and gardening techniques can make a big difference in both blooming time and amount of bloom. Even in the same garden, plants in protected locations or in raised beds or amended soil often flower much earlier than the same plant in natural soil or in an exposed location.

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