Winter Heath (Erica Carnea) Ideal For Sunny Rock Gardens

Some of the best hardy plants that contribute interest and beauty to winter gardens are rarely seen. But fortunately, some are becoming better known. One of the most pleasing is winter heath, Erica carnea.

This small shrub is outstanding not only for the abundance and duration of its bloom, which lasts fully half the winter but also because it is the easiest of the heaths to raise in many gardens. Therefore, one of the first questions about health is its hardiness. 

Winter HeathPin

On this score, there is ample reassurance, as this species survives 10° degrees Fahrenheit below zero and possibly even more extreme cold for short periods without damage.

Winter Heaths

Winter heaths make dense cushion-like masses rarely more than 10” inches high, and they may spread 2’ feet or more in time. Young plants are about twice as wide as their height.

This species has needle-like leaves, about ¼” an inch long, set around the branchlets in whorls of four. The needles are rich dark green except for a deep silvery groove on the lower surface. 

As they last for several years, the leaves play an important part in the dense appearance of these small shrubs.

Towards the latter part of the growing season, one notices the great numbers of green buds hanging along the lower side of the growth made earlier in the year. 

The buds usually occupy the terminal 2” or 3” inches of the shoots, but in favorable seasons, the entire growth is sometimes lined with them. 

Early Opening Of The Buds

Some years favor the early opening of the buds, and one can often find them showing color in November. 

January and February are more typical for the beginning of the display, however, exposure to winter sunshine, protection from winds, type of soil, and several other factors influence the opening of the buds. 

The date varies considerably from year to year. Bell-shaped rose pink corollas push out from the green buds, which become pinkish and turn into small, deeply four-cleft calyces. 

Purple anthers project slightly through the drooping corollas and set off the more delicate tones of the rest of the flowers.

Selection Of Colors By Varieties

Several named varieties or clones offer selections in different intensities of color, and one, Springwood White, has beautiful albino flowers. The ranks of small drooping bells along every shoot are completely delightful. 

One can hardly believe that delicate blossoms survive bitter weather and sudden temperature changes. 

They survive, but even if a cold snap browns some (lowers, new ones will open when the weather moderates. 

Erica Carnea’s Growing Conditions

Erica carnea is tolerant of a wider range of growing conditions than most heaths and heathers, and it even appears to thrive in neutral and slightly alkaline soil. 

For sure results, however, any light, well-drained loam with a generous proportion of peat moss or oak-leaf mold is considered most favorable, and the plants should have abundant sunshine. 

Sharp drainage is of great importance in establishing plantings of most heaths in gardens, even though self-sown seedlings and native stands can thrive in situations where the soil seems quite wet. 

Some of the finest specimens of winter heath noted were deeply entrenched in a bed of native peat and sand, which always seemed hot and dry on the surface. 

Two inches down, however, the mixture was constantly moist; at a depth of 10” inches, it was very wet indeed. Thick masses of roots from the heaths went still deeper! 

Heaths’ Spring Planting

When heaths are purchased in pots or temporary paper containers, they can be set out at almost any time, but spring planting is always preferred as it gives the young plants plenty of time to become established. 

Special care is rarely needed after they have been brought through any dangerously dry spells the first summer. However, in areas where the winters are likely to be harsh, it is beneficial to furnish some protection from winds for the first year or two. 

This can be done very easily by laying small cedars or brandies of pines or other conifers through the heath plantings. Once the plants are growing well, this green mulching is not necessary.

Various Winter Heath Uses

As one would suspect from its natural haunts in the Alps of south-central Europe, winter heath is thoroughly at home among rocks and boulders. 

It is an ideal plant for a sunny rock garden, particularly one seen from the house or driveway.

Winter heaths are superb on a terrace or naturalistic rock-strewn slope, preferably facing away from winds and toward the sun. 

The picture is very fine when they are planted in front of conifers, such as Dwarf Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo ‘Mughus’) for slender Serbian spruces (Picea omorika). 

One of the most pleasing ways to use them, especially in small gardens, is on the top of low drywall in the company of dwarf junipers and prostate brooms. 

Despite their wild rocky upbringing, winter heaths take naturally to this more formal association, and their dense rounded habit is a valuable asset in plantings of this type.

44659 by Ben Blackburn