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Erica carnea, the winter heather

Erica carnea - winter heath

Spreading out to form wonderful carpets of color at the heart of winter, Erica carnea can beat bad weather to the point of sprouting through a blanket of snow. A choreography of white, pink and purple bells swells up from beneath the monotonous white winter mantle. Is this not proof that this small, hardy shrub can take the worst and still, against all odds, thrive?

This plant, a type of heath plant, is native to the higher alpine regions, and can grow in the poorest of soils. Extreme cold and withering heat won’t hurt it in the least. Its slow but regular growth means it’s perfect for use in pots and containers and to decorate garden boxes. Choose the varieties wisely, and you’ll have uninterrupted blooming from November to May.

Advantages of Erica carnea

Erica carnea is one of the most beautiful hardy heathers. With a size that stays within the 6 to 12-inch range (15 to 30 cm), it grows in the wild in the Alps where its pale red blooms coat the fields from January to April.

  • Planting guide for erica carneaAn ideal plant to add to low-maintenance gardens, especially if you pair it with ornamental rocks. Toss in a few wispy grasses to introduce a little airiness into the stocky heather-and-rock composition.
  • Currently, the vast range of cultivars enables near infinite variations in hues both for the blooming and for the leafage. Leaves can come in intense green colors, but also bronze and even golden tones, and all will bear flowers for extended periods.
  • Hardy, resilient, this plant forms an excellent ground cover at the foot of shrubs or under taller perennials.
  • Erica carnea, the snow heatherThe only kind of maintenance expected from you is to cut leafy stems back by half after the blooming: this triggers branching out, keeping the plant dense and tight. Not trimming would lead the plant to degenerate and grow sparse and scrawny. Just like lavender, though, a word of caution: don’t cut back too far because heather has trouble creating new shoots from old wood. Always stay within the leafy portion of stems when you cut it back.
  • Directly in the ground, once it’s properly settled in, no need to water or fertilize. Winter heather is perfectly suited to container growing: all you need to ensure is some regularity in the water you provide: it doesn’t need much, but it needs it whenever the soil dries out. Also, drainage should be excellent.

How to plant winter heather?

Watering tips for erica carneaIn a garden, it helps when Erica carnea is planted in large numbers: a single one won’t be noticed, but a large planted area will look stunning. It’s also possible to set it up between shrubs, so it can weave its way along the ground in a shrub bed that’s planted with small conifers, covering the soil up in a lush, dense blanket, and you can even guide it along edges, lining a walkway for instance.

These heather species are excellent companions for taller perennials such as Rudbeckia, Aster and grasses since it helps showcase them against a uniform, dense backdrop.

  • Plant them in light soil that drains very well, acidic is best but slightly alkaline pH is still fine. Both full sun and light shade suit it well.
  • You shouldn’t bury the root clump too deep: never cover roots with more than ¼th inch soil (½ cm).

Heather in a balcony

In garden boxes, Erica carnea is the best friend of silver ragwort, cyclamen, berry shrubs (Gaultheria, Skimmia).

  • Repot the heather clump in spring, after it has bloomed. Don’t break the clump apart unless the root ball feels too tight: wait until roots don’t have any elbowroom left at all. When it reaches that stage, untangle the clump or chop the outer shell away, this will stimulate the plant into growing new roots. Same advice for younger specimens that come from garden stores and nurseries: these often have over-developed root balls due to the near-perfect care and growth hormones they get.
  • In spring, feed it with rhododendron fertilizer (hydrangea fertilizer is great, too) and split older clumps into two or four new plants.

Experiment original landscaping pairings, for instance with ornamental cabbage that boast pink, blue or silver leaves, and even black ones in the case of the edible ‘Nero di Toscana’ kale variety.

Drawbacks of Erica carnea

Landscaping uses for erica carneaThe only weakness this particular winter heather plant has is that whenever it’s not blooming, you feel nothing is happening. This is due to how slow growth is, and to how small the leaves are. However, if you pay careful attention to it, you’ll notice that the hue of its leaves does change when temperatures rise and fall.

  • The only enemy it has is stagnant water. Erica carnea happily settles in any kind of garden soil, even if a bit chalky, but only if it doesn’t retain water over long periods. Usually, you can avoid this problem if you add about 15% peat or good soil mix together with mostly sandy soil in the planting hole.
  • Avoid full sun for varieties that have bronze or gold-colored leaves, they’re more vulnerable to sunburn.
  • Erica carnea appreciates moist air, the type you generally experience along the coast, and part-shade exposure.
  • During hot and dry summers, for potted plants, feel free to hose them down every evening to cool them off.

Read also: Erica heather, the fall and winter heather

Smart tip

Heather plants tend to have a repellent effect on weeds since their roots exude substances that are toxic to young roots. They survive in extremely poor soil thanks to a special fungus that permeates the entire plant. It even hitches a ride along inside the seed to make sure it follows the plant everywhere.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
CC BY 2.0: Andy Morffew, Maja Dumat
CC BY-SA 2.0: stanze
Pixabay: Joël Schurter
shutterstock: R. Maximiliane
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