The wonderful thing about gardening in the mid-Atlantic is that we have just enough summer heat and winter cold to grow plants that are more common to our north and south. This sweet overlap allows us to grow crape myrtles and bigleaf hydrangeas side-by-side with lilacs and potentilla. One of these plant groups at the southern edge of its heat tolerance is the heaths and heathers, naturally found in northern Europe. Often lumped together due to their similarities, they have their differences in flowering time – about half a year apart – in broad strokes, heaths bloom in late winter or early spring, and heathers bloom late summer into fall. Foliage on both is fine and almost needle-like, like a miniature conifer, and lends itself beautifully to pairing with true conifers, leafy groundcovers and in mixed rock gardens. Flowers run up the uppermost few inches of the stems, their barrel or tapering bell shape looking similar to their blueberry and andromeda relatives.
The trick to keeping heaths and heathers happy in our area is in the soil: they require perfect drainage and benefit from an almost sandy or gritty texture with organic matter that isn’t high in nutrients. (Much like a peat bog, but without the sogginess.) Make the soil acidic and console them in the height of summer with a touch of shade and water when things get too dry for too long.
Companion plants include various relatives like lowbush blueberries, andromeda, huckleberry and bearberry; perennials that adapt to the lower ranges of acidic soil, such as Calico Aster (Symphiotrichum lateriflorum), Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium); and creeping junipers. Don’t forget foliage interest in your garden planning, as several heaths and heathers change colors between winter, spring, and summer. Their low, broad, mounded shape makes mature heaths and heathers a nice foil to spiky, upright-growing plants and carpeting ground-huggers. Although cut flowers make a nice dainty addition to a home-made bouquet, plants will not rebound well if stems are pruned more harshly down into leafless branches, so they’re pretty hands-free unless you want to give them a quick dead-heading at the end of the flowering season.
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer