FOR a plant that flowers in winter and well into spring, at a time when there are not many plants showing colour, winter heather has been badly neglected. There are many different kinds, some flowering in November and December, others beginning in January and February.
Heathers have not had their rightful place in recent years because they were previously over-used in heather and conifer beds. This idea still pops up sometimes when people try to think of how to cover a bank, but it is not an attractive way to use heathers.
It is important to remember that, in summer, when the garden should be at its peak, winter heathers look their worst and are very dull when out of flower. If a lot of heathers have been planted as a group, or a full bed, this area looks leaden in summer, without colour or movement.
The best way to use heathers is to plant individual plants, or groups of three, in strategic positions where they will have most impact. Place heathers towards the front of beds and borders, near paved areas, and at the top of low retaining walls, locations where their colour will be visible. They are very effective used in containers, and can be planted out later.
Good varieties of winter heather include the early flowering 'December Red' and 'King George'. Good spring flowering kinds include 'Myretoun Ruby', 'Vivelli', 'Springwood White' and 'Springwood Pink', all low-growing. Some kinds have bronze or yellow foliage, such as 'Foxhollow' which turns orange-red in winter.
Taller varieties to about 50cm include 'Irish Dusk' which flowers pink from early winter to late spring, the lovely white form 'WT Rackliff', and 'Brightness' with purplish dark foliage in winter and pink spring flowers.
'Kramer's Red', 'Jenny Porter', 'Arthur Johnston', 'Silberschmelze' and 'Darley Dale' reach about knee-height, and are more upright. The larger sorts are the best choice for spring display because they are big enough to make an impact, even as a single plant.
The winter heathers are hardy, well able to withstand harsh weather. These kinds grow well in limy soil and, unlike the autumn heathers, they do not need acidic soil. A lovely effect can be created when these heathers are associated with some spring bulbs, such as crocuses, small daffodil varieties, scillas and chionodoxas. Associating them with grassy plants, such as brown sedges, is also very effective. They need full sunshine to do well.