Heather is famous as the beautiful flowering plant that decorates the moorlands of Scotland, Europe, Asia and even some gardens. To others, however, it is seen as an invasive weed that covers vast areas of land.
Heather is part of the Ericaceae family. There are three members: the Calluna Vulgaris (a low-growing perennial shrub reaching 20-50cm), the Erica Carnea (a low-growing shrub covered in bell shaped flowers), and the Erica Arborea or ‘Tree Heath’ (a shrub or small tree with a typical height of 1-4m).
In the wild, Heather blooms with mauve flowers but occasionally they are found with white. In Scottish tales, mauve Heather is said to be stained with the blood of the clan wars, while white is said to be pure and lucky. Possessing white Heather apparently protects you from violent assault.
There are over 1,500 different varieties of Heather, from tiny dwarfs and ground-covering shrubs to small trees in an array of colours. The plant flowers from July through to November, but even after the flowers turn brown the appearance is still pretty. The plant can often be seen covered in white snow, which makes it even prettier.
Heather has to be well managed because it spreads very quickly (hence the invasive weed idea). It even regenerates after burning. It is however a good food source for deer, sheep, cattle and various bugs and larvae, especially when other food is scarce and snow covers the ground.
Over the years Heather has proven to be useful as a food ingredient, a tool and as a medicine. Before the use of hops was discovered, Heather was used in the brewing of beer. Although it is still used like this today, it has to be regulated carefully to ensure that any fungi has been removed. Heather is also a good flavouring for tea and honey – Heather honey is highly valued in the moorlands, providing a strong taste and unusual texture. As a tool, Heather was used to make brooms and the wood of the tree heath was used to make pipes. Heather was also used in many tonics and potions to aid the healing of cystitis, diarrhoea, consumption, coughs, nerves, arthritis and rheumatism.
Mythically this plant is meant to bring good fortune and mental wellbeing. It also has a reputation for being a portal between this world and the fairy world…