Name: Heath (Erica cinerea) and Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
Type of Plant: These two plants are commonly called “heather” but they are two different species. Both are in the family Ericaceae, however and they like similar growing conditions.
Why I Love This Plant: When planted in the right situations, these are lovely plants. They want good drainage, which most people on Cape Cod have in spades with our sandy soils. They also grow best in acidic soils in the range of 4.5 to 5.5, conditions common in Cape gardens.
Besides the genus name, what’s the difference between these plants? The foliage is the main difference, and you can quickly tell them apart by remembering this rhyme: heath has teeth and heathers have feathers. If you look at leaves on an Erica they are sharp and pointy, but the foliage on a Calluna looks like a tiny feather.
Most heaths that people grow around here bloom in the late winter to early spring. Those pink and white flowering, low growing plants that are in bloom now are heaths.
A Word to the Wise: Whether you have heaths or heathers, prune them right after they flower. This is especially important for the Callunas, since heathers can end up looking kind of stemmy and disheveled if they aren’t pruned. A small, battery operated shearing tool is good for doing this.
Also, know that if your heaths or heathers have some dieback this year, you’re not alone. These are plants that often die after a rollercoaster winter like the one we just had.