Friday, January 8, 2010

Heaths and Heathers for the Oregon Coast

When the calendar turns to a new year, we are generally challenged to find any plants that offer a display of colorful blooms. It's pretty dark, wet and cold out there, and most plants are in hibernation. This is when winter-blooming heath rules the roost.

Heath (Erica spp.) is the lookalike cousin (frequently confused) to spring and summer-blooming heather (Calluna vulgaris). It is common for nurseries to even label heath as "heather," preferring to list a name more familiar to their customers. Inspect the two plants closely and you will find significant differences.

What is normally sold in winter or early spring, in bloom, is heath. Common varieties-- overly planted in my opinion-- are 'Mediterranean Pink' and 'Mediterranean White.' Don't ask me why this symbol of Scotland is given the moniker conjuring points south. My own plants of 'Pink' are blooming at this writing. Take a look at the branches and greenery, and you will find that Erica sports a needle-like leaf on thin woody stems, and tends to grow rather closely to the ground. It usually doesn't exceed 12 inches in height and can spread several feet in every direction.

Calluna, by contrast, is unlikely to be blooming in winter or early spring. These beauties tend to grow more upright, though they also spread. Height can reach 24' without shearing. The blooms are denser and often more brilliant, sporting many shades of pink, white and red. Foliage is often a soft silvery-grey resembling lavender foliage, and offers a contrast with other evergreen groundcovers year-round. The foliage is more scale-like than Erica, resembling tiny rounded leaves rather than needles.

Both Erica and Calluna are members of the same family, Ericaceae. This huge family includes other acid-loving evergreens with urn-shaped flowers, including Pieris, kinnickkinnick, blueberries and huckleberries, rhododendrons and even our native Pacific Madrone trees. So it should be no surprise that heaths and heathers love it on our central coast. The native soils are acidic, well-drained (sandy) with plenty of rotted organic matter and retain enough moisture to get the plants through dry summers. They also appreciate our mild temps, with best blooming on sites with good exposure to light.

The many attributes of these fine plants include low- to no-maintenance in the right spot, with only optional shearing for size or neatness. They require almost no supplemental water on the coast, and although they will appreciate occasional acid-plant fertilizer, they don't require it. Bloom time can be staggered over the many varieties, especially when you include the colorful winter/spring foliage on cultivars like 'Spring Torch' or 'Robert Chapman.' The plants are all evergreen, and fit neatly within a well-planned landscape to suppress weeds and cover hillsides. They can perform well under deciduous trees if the shade canopy is not overly dense, which will cause them to become thin and leggy with sparse blooms.

Great sources for heath and heather include our local nurseries Blake's in Gleneden Beach and Bear Valley in Lincoln City. For a wider array of choices by mail order, check out Heaths and Heathers in SW Washington state, and Highland Heather in Canby OR. I have used products from both and found them to be exceptional in quality and knowledge.


  1. First, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on my Oregon coast post. You are right; you do live in a little piece of heaven. The Connie Hansen Garden was on my list of things to do in Lincoln City, but unfortunately time was short. My family all agreed that the one thing we would do differently would be to stay longer in Lincoln City. I have a question about Lincoln City - does it feel more like a resort with vacation renters or is there a sense of year round community?

    I enjoyed this post on heath and heather. I have always admired these plants. Occasionally I see them for sale in my area, and I have been tempted to try them. I don't know how they would respond to our hot, humid summers.

    Happy gardening, and thanks again for visiting me on the opposite end of the country.

  2. Hi Deb, thanks for your nice comments. Heather can tolerate quite a bit of heat (with adequate watering) though I suspect you might have problems with humidity (fungal disease) unless the site has good air circulation and full sun. You might try one plant as a test, if you have a rocky slope or wall they like that sort of placement. Be sure the soil has a low pH.

    As for your question on Lincoln City, it is a great community. It only feels like a resort from mid-July to mid-Sept, and then it's mostly the traffic you notice. Though it's a small town, it has attracted retirees and others from all over the country (many from UK) so it has the benefit of all these really smart and accomplished people, living their dream on the Oregon coast. There are always fun events and great food to choose from, even in winter, and the community has a really strong volunteer ethic. The average income is low, and the cost of living higher, but still we are so happy to live here! We will welcome you back anytime...