There are not many plants that are as rewarding all year round as the Winter flowering Heather. Here in Ireland we have quite a few varieties of Heather growing wild in our boglands and mountains. The latin name for Heathers is actually Erica and they are related to other acid loving plants such as Azaleas and Rhododendrons. The fact that most species like a more acidic type of soil means they thrive in our peat lands where the PH levels of the soil provide perfect growing conditions for heather. There is nowhere more beautiful than the Irish landscape when the Heather is blooming in all its glory.
The lovely Heather pictured above, which I sourced at Homeland in Sligo (Homeland.ie), is the Erica × darleyensis ‘Ghost Hills’ and is a great plant to use as groundcover in the garden. The plant is evergreen and looks good at all times of the year but in late Winter or early Spring it has an abundance of pale pink-lilac, bell shaped flowers. The flowers often last for a long time too and can often still be admired in April. Heather is not just a beautiful plant, it also provides a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinators so is a perfect plant for encouraging wildlife into the garden.
Many people think that Heathers are tricky plants to grow successfully but if you consider how it grows abundantly in the wild all over Ireland then it must like our climate. If planted in the right conditions-a slightly acidic soil and adequate drainage, this Heather needs very little care. After it has finished flowering, simply use your garden shears to trim the plant and encourage growth. It is also a good idea to apply some well balanced fertilizer during the growing season.
From a design perspective I think Heathers are often used in a way that looks too contrived. The best idea is to look at how it grows in nature. I love seeing Heathers planted in the way they would grow naturally, softly mounding over an uneven landscape and forming mats of evergreen clumps.
Interestingly, Heather has a long history of uses and folklore attached to it. As a flower it has long been thought to bring luck, particularly the more rare white variety which is often carried by Scottish brides as they walk down the aisle. In aromatherapy the Heather plant is used to treat many ailments from digestive problems to skin problems and insomnia. The woody, mossy scent of the flower means it is often used to create deliciously scented perfumes, soaps and other beauty products and due to its musky scent, can often be found in masculine beauty products.
Apart from its benefits in the world of cosmetics Heather has a long history of uses in the home and has been used to create many things such as thatched roofs, brooms, rope, baskets and more. I actually remember coming across an old abandoned house in the countryside years ago on my rambles and seeing a mattress made out of fabric stuffed with Heather. Apparently a Heather mattress was not only considered extremely comfortable but even aromatherapeutic. What a wonderfully versatile shrub.
Our unique boglands are stunning landscapes with fascinating biodiversty. The high acidity level of the bog soil means heathers flourish in many bogs and they are home to many rare plants such as native orchid varieties. Many bogs hide treasures from the past in the form of ancient tools and materials as well as the fascinating, well preserved bog bodies. One great example of an unusual raised bog is the Girley Bog in Co. Meath, which is a Coillte EU Life project. The loop, which features interpretive panels throughout has been developed as an eco-walk and leads through areas of forest and unique raised bogland.
For a guided walk check out www.meathecotours.com or for more info go to www.coillteoutdoors.ie Art Image Claire Littlejohn
Heather is a wonderful flavouring agent for beverages and food and is still used in many beers and spirits. In the past years craft beer making has had a massive resurgence in Ireland and ‘The White Hag’ brewery based in County Sligo is a company that is combining a modern approach with ancient brewing methods. Amid endless bags of wheat, barley and hops Brewmaster Joe Kearns tells me that the Irish Heather sour ale is a resurrection of an ancient beer style brewed in Ireland from the neolithic era, up until the 1700’s. The bags of heather are collected by hand by the White Hag team and the flowers are used instead of hops to balance the sweet, rich malts used in the making of the ale. What a perfect way of using a beautiful plant in an ancient practice.
I hope you can help me. My husband and I recently built a new house outside Waterford and have a huge plot out the bak of the house. We moved from an apartment in Dublin and now I suddenly feel like we have endless amounts of space. Unfortunately I don’t have a clue where to start. It feels like such a daunting task. Can you give us any advice?
Claire, Co. Waterford
Claire, Co. Waterford
Thanks for your email. I see your dilemma, sometimes the more space you have the trickier it gets to start taking it on. Apart from the obvious maintenance issues of actually developing a large site into a garden, designing a large-scale plot is a challenge for the best designers. The first thing I think you should start with is your requirements. What do you dream of having in your garden? What are the functional needs that must be met. make a list of both of these. Your ideal, dream garden and then the family needs. List one will contain things like your favourite plants, features such as arbours, pergola, greenhouse etc. List two will need to outline all the needs you have from the garden, your functional requirements such as dining areas, raincover, washing lines, pathways, veg/fruit growing or whatever it is that you and your family need to make your garden work for you. Now try and prioritise list 2-your functional requirements. What is most important and what do you need near the house? Herbs for the kitchen should be near the back door or close to where the kitchen is…same applies for the clothes line, compost etc. The other thing I would then do is divide off a space that becomes your living garden, ie the one you will use most. This will be a more developed area that has all the features you require. The real trick is not only getting the immediate garden to work as a designed space but also as a whole with the site and its context. This is a big topic and I would think that it would definitely be of benefit to contact a trained designer to help achieve it successfully. To find a list of recommended designers in your region check out www.glda.ie0