Shades of winter

WINTER WONDER; Erica carnea 'Whitehall' loves the British winter.
WINTER WONDER; Erica carnea 'Whitehall' loves the British winter.
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Erica carnea ‘Whitehall’ loves the British winter. It may be difficult to spot when there’s snow on the ground, but give it a dull, dismal day and it will glow.

This is one tough winter heather that thrives in sun or partial shade. Given a well-drained acid soil, it will begin to produce white, urn-shaped flowers at Christmas and go on blooming well into the following spring.

And because it’s upright and compact, it’s not only perfect for beds and borders but ideal for containers.

During the growing season, water it regularly, and give it a half-strength application of a balanced liquid fertiliser every four weeks. After the plant has flowered, trim it to remove the dead flowers and encourage bushy growth.

Winter heather (Erica carnea) has become one of the most popular plants to grow – there are more than 200 cultivars of winter heather, with bloom times ranging from October to March.

Established plants need little care, but all types should be pruned immediately after flowering. A hard shearing when their blossoms fade will help the evergreen foliage stay compact and bushy and set the stage for more flowers next winter.

Leave it unpruned and it will brown up, turn twiggy, and lose its good looks. Shear it annually, right after the flowers have started to fade, and it will flourish and stay attractive for a decade or more.

Erica isn’t that other common heather, or ling, Calluna vulgaris, because the latter, although stunningly colourful and pretty in summer, doesn’t flower in the midst of winter or even in spring, so it’s not a patch on its hardy, all-year-round cousin.

And it hates any trace of lime in the soil, whereas the majority of Erica can tolerate most soils as long as they are relatively well-drained. There are some which can’t grow in lime, but they are more than outnumbered by those which can.

As for colour... there are reds, purples, golds, whites, in fact, just about any colour. If you choose with care, you can have some form of heather flowering every month of the year.

And they also come in a variety of heights, from those which won’t look 
out of place in a rockery, to the mighty, E arborea, which can top six feet, so there’s a heather for any garden.