Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, some plants just look at home in dank, drizzly weather, and the winter-flowering heather at my Aunt Hilary’s house in Somerset was bejewelled with raindrops when I spotted it this weekend. Each of the bell-shaped blooms seemed to be clutching its own crystal beach-ball of water, and the contrast of the magenta anthers to the pale pink petals was a lovely surprise.
Heathers (or ‘heaths’) are indeed plants of acid heathland, and there are several native varieties which can be found all over the West Country, and of course in their heartland in Scotland. This winter-flowering species comes originally from the mountainous areas of south and central Europe, where it grows amongst the conifers and on the rocky slopes. It is less of a calcifuge (acid-lover) than many of the other species, which means it will tolerate a much greater range of soil types. This burst of colour in the middle of the greyness of January is welcomed by many gardeners, and many early-rising bumblebee queens in need of a burst of nectar to keep them going for the rest of the winter.
The name ‘Erica’ actually means ‘heath’ in Ancient Greek, while the species name carnea means ‘flesh-pink’, probably also the derivation of the name ‘carnation’. As with carnation, however, winter-flowering heathers now come in a wide variety of colours, from white through to darkest pink. You may also find the plant with the earlier name of Erica herbacea. Tis the same plant! Life is most confusing sometimes.
Surprisingly enough, the motherlode for heather species is not the damp uplands of Northern Europe, but the sunny fynbos area of South Africa, where there are no less than 690 species of Ericas. Have a look at this post here, showing the sheer variety of shapes, colours and sizes. It’s enough to make me start saving up for a plane ticket to the Cape. Wednesday Weed from the fynbos, anyone? in the meantime, here are a few examples.
Well, after that blast of sunshine, let’s go back to considering our winter-flowering heather. One question that occurred to me was ‘if this is a winter-flowering plant, who pollinates it?’ Aside from the aforementioned bumblebee queens, no self-respecting insect is going to be about in January. However, this is a plant with a very long flowering season, and it will quite likely still be flowering in March and April, when things warm up and the daylight increases. And, in mountainous areas, the pollinators will be up and about as soon as they possibly can, because the season is so short.
One interesting article that I found suggested that, unlike most heathers, which are largely fertilised by honeybees (hence heather honey), the winter-flowering heather seems to be more adapted for the long proboscises of butterflies, particularly the painted lady (Vanessa cardui). This is an abundant species in the Alps in early summer for sure, and I have seen it feeding on heather myself, so maybe the author of the article here has a point. What are your observations, gardening friends?And for those of you with winter-flowering heather in the garden, keep an eye open for the caterpillars of the true lover’s knot moth (Lycophotia porphyrea).
Now, while we’re on the subject of true lover’s knots and such, you might be as interested (and surprised) as I was to find that the flowers of winter-flowering heather apparently have a similar effect to Viagra. An Independent article from 2007 describes how stocks of the plant were selling out at Wyevale Garden Centres, A spokesperson explains:
“At first, it was just a trickle of inquiries, but now stores are virtually being besieged each weekend. We have had men buying dozens of the plants and, at one store in Croydon, there were men old enough to know better fighting over the last remaining trays.”
And what a picture that conjures up! As does the one below:
“It’s amazing. My husband has never shown any interest in gardening before, but now he’s out there night and day fussing over his heathers. Frankly, I preferred it when he left the garden to me and wasn’t so frisky.”
For a further description of how to actually turn the innocent blooms of the winter-flowering heather into a love potion, you can read the whole article here. Note that includes the mention of quality full-strength vodka.
Note also that the byline of the article is just before 1st April 🙂
Sadly, I can find no mention of actual medicinal uses for this particular plant, though our native heathers have a whole raft of applications, from cough medicine to the making of heather beer. I shall save those stories until I am lucky enough to stumble over a native heather, so watch this space!
Heather (and quite possibly this species) was sacred to the goddess Venus Erycina (the name means ‘of the heather). She was the Sicilian goddess of love, so maybe the Viagra link is so outlandish after all. Her cult was transmuted into respectability in Rome, and she was worshipped by respectable Roman matrons at a temple on the Capitoline Hill, and at another temple outside the boundaries of Rome by ‘common girls’ and prostitutes.
As you know, I like to round off my celebration of a Wednesday Weed with a poem if I can find one. I found these verses by Maria Grace Saffrey, a Baptist poet who died in 1858, very moving, in spite of my not being a conventional Christian. For the whole poem, click here.
Nature his faithfulness can tell
Where hath he left his work undone?
The dew-drop on the heather-bell
The burning pathway of the sun
Alike the constancy record
Of Him who is Creation’s Lord
Forsaken seem’d the winter flower
Before she felt the breath of spring:
But then he sent the dewy shower,
With sunbeams on the morning’s wing;
And all her summer bloom shall say
He watch’d her in the wintry day.
Photo One by By Heinz Staudacher – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63328580
Photo Two by By Michael Apel (photo taken by Michael Apel) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by user Han Derks at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. – This image is uploaded as image number 2581108 at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20588445
Photo Four by By Donald Hobern from Canberra, Australia – Lycophotia porphyrea, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4935147
Photo Five by By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36650506