Winter flowering heathers an all round valuable garden plant
Poor old January, not many of us grieve its passing each year. Not in the Northern hemisphere at least. It can be hard to love. Also hard to love, for me at least, are the winter flowering heathers. I feel guilty about both as it is neither Januarys or the heathers fault I find them hard to take. I feel particularly guilty when it comes to the heathers. They are very easy to grow and ask for very little, long flowering from November to March, make excellent groundcover and are an all round valuable garden plant.
I find that even on the brightest winters day they are a little boring and their colours somewhat dull and lifeless. Despite this I do grow some in my garden where they are used sparingly as single plants or in groups of three, using them as punctuations in the borders. These are positioned so they can be seen from the house because I'm not sure they would inspire me to don the wellies and make the trek out to them if they were hidden, which I would do for a Sarcococca or Iris unguicularis say.
But to be honest I do enjoy seeing these heathers in isolation but this is exclusively because they are winter flowering I wouldn't give them summer space. Summer flowering heathers in my opinion should be left to their undoubted magnificence on mountain sides and bogs. That is unless your garden is on a mountain side or bog of course. Many of the summer flowering heathers are natives to Ireland and include Erica cinerea, Erica tetralix, Calluna vulgaris and Daboecia cantabrica. All of these summer heathers are acid loving [ low ph soil conditions] unlike the winter flowerers which are lime tolerant [higher ph soil conditions] which is another plus for the winter heathers in being versatile.
There are two main species of winter flowering heathers both Ericas and both with many cultivars [named varieties]. Erica carnea is a native of the European Alps and it tends to be low 15 to 25 centimetres and mat formimg. Erica x darleyensis is a hybrid between E. carnea and E. erigena which naturally occurred in a nursery in Derbyshire England. These are also mat forming but tend to be slightly higher ranging from 30 to 60 centimetres depending on the cultivar. It is recommended as a good planting companion with E. carnea if you want to mass plant an area. Both of these heathers flower white through the pinks to red and both of these heathers are available with foliage variations from deep green through bronze to golds and yellows..
I prefer the whites and the dark reds as some of the pinks are a little insipid for my palate or palette for that matter. Buy your heathers in flower so you can see the exact colours, be aware that the reds and pinks will fade over the winter eventually becoming brown.
Erica carnea 'Vivellii' has deep carmine flowers and dark green foliage turning winter bronze. E. carnea 'Foxhollow' has pale pink flowers with summer foliage lime green becoming rich yellow gold in winter. E. carnea 'Golden Starlet is white flowered with yellow foliage all year. The two cultivars 'Springwood white' and 'Springwood Pink' tend to be less compact than others and are more trailing but still make excellent groundcover.
Erica x darleyensis 'Darley Dale' is the original plant taking its name from the nursery where the hybrid occured. It has pink flowers and green foliage and is around 35 centimetres high. E. x darleyensis 'Jack H. Brumage' has deep pink flowers and golden yellow foliage and is 30 centimetres high. E x darleyensis 'Arthur Johnson' is one of the tallest at 60 centimetres with magenta flowers. E. x darleyensis 'Silberschmelze' [ Molten silver] and ' White Perfection' are quite similar both white with dark green foliage.
Winter heathers can be lightly clipped with shears once the flowers have become brown. Don't cut into the old wood as they will not reshoot from there. The aim is to remove the old flowering wood and no more. This would typically be done towards the end of March or beginning of April and will encourage a compact plant and increase the flowering potential the following year.