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Heather Plant Care

Calluna vulgaris or heather is the lone species in the Calluna genus of the flowering plant Ericaceae family and is indigenous to Europe and Asia Minor. However, it has been established in many other locations of suitable climates, including Australia, North America, New Zealand, and the Falkland Islands. It is usually the dominant plant growing on most heaths, moors, bogs, and woodlands. 

This low-growing evergreen plant is relatively compact, growing to 8 to 20 inches high and rarely to 40 inches or taller and about 2 or 3 feet wide, making it a good candidate for growing indoors. It grows relatively fast and lives for a few years. It has small leaves and flowers from July to September.

The flowers of wild plants are generally mauve and sometimes white, although several cultivars were developed to produce flower colors ranging of white, pink, many shades of purple, and red. Cultivars were developed for their ornamental foliage with colors of red, gold, and silvery grey, often changing color in winter by increasing the intensity of colors. Its popularity in modern times may be due to the trend for growing alpine plants in gardens and landscapes.

It is exceptionally cold-hardy and can survive extreme exposure and freezing weather much below −4°F. As it is a shrub, it can get leggy if not monitored, if you plant multiple plants in one area, provide enough space, at least 2 feet, between them for proper air circulation.

It regenerates in nature preserves and moors after being grazed on by sheep, cattle, and other wildlife and also after occasional burning. It is a key source of food for sheep and deer that graze on the tips of these plants when covered by snow in winter, birds such as willow and red grouse feast on young shoots and seeds of the plant. Adult heather beetles and their larva also feed on the plant, causing extensive death in some cases. The larvae of several butterflies and moths also use the plant for food.

This plant was used for dyeing wool, tanning leather, and brewing heather beer in the Middle Ages before the advent of hops. While honey collected in this plant wasn’t valued in the past as it is today, it has an unusual texture and strong taste, appearing like jelly but turning syrupy like regular honey when stirred and returning jelly-like consistency afterward. This makes extracting honey difficult and it is generally sold with the combs.

White heather is traditionally thought to be lucky in Scotland and Queen Victoria introduced this tradition to England. Sprigs are still used in bridal bouquets and are often sold as lucky charms. The plant is iconic of Scotland and has been widely written about in literature and poetry.

The plant has become invasive in certain locations of New Zealand, dominating native plants. 

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Sunlight

This plant needs good exposure to sunlight to keep its foliage vibrant. It takes about 6+ hours under full sun. Insufficient light will make the plant turn leggy and dull the foliage.

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Water

Water adult plants once a week – young plants need more watering during the first few months after they are planted. The soil should be moist but not too soggy. Growing conditions have to be factored into watering frequency as well as warmer weather or arid conditions might require more water to prevent the roots from drying. Root rot is another major consideration with this plant. 

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Humidity

High levels of humidity can be a problem as this plant grows naturally in low humid environments. Try to maintain an average of 30-50% as the leaves are very sensitive to having excess moisture on their surfaces.

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Temperature

This plant is rather sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and lows of -11°F can affect the overall health of the plant. Fortunately, indoor temperatures won’t drop so low. Generally, try to maintain temperatures between 50-70°F. 

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Soil

This plant is very particular about soil pH levels and needs an acidic range of 4-5.5. Soil rich with peat moss or compost can help provide missing nutrients. Loamy soils are also suitable for this plant, you may have to add fertilizer to increase nutrients that are usually lacking in acidic soils.

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Repotting

Repot this plant every 2 years, the root system is hardy and makes it easier to transfer to a new home – ensure the new container has good drainage capacity filled with appropriate soil. 

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Propagation

The easiest technique of propagation is either by cutting or layering, although it can also be done from seeds although it will take time.

Cuttings:

Prepare a small container of fresh acidic soil mixed with organic compost. Choose a healthy and mature stem and take three or four-inch cuttings beneath a bud. Insert the cuttings in the container spaced about an inch from each other. Water thoroughly and continue adding water to stop the soil from drying out.

New growth generally takes a few weeks to appear. Once this happens, transfer the new plants to larger containers individually since you will have multiple plants.

Layering:

Choose a healthy stem close to the ground and scrape off an inch or two from the outer bark. Gently force down the cut area into the soil and hold it down with garden pins or a flat stone. New roots should form within a few weeks. Cut the stem closer to the side of the plant and transfer it to a prepared pot and care for it as usual.

Additional Care

This plant needs little or no. However, if growth appears to be slow or stunted, add a water-soluble fertilizer formulated for plants growing in acidic soil during winter and spring. Choose the appropriate fertilizer as over-fertilizing with the wrong type will stunt growth, as excessive nitrogen content will cause more harm than good.

Common Problems

Some pests can plague this plant. While indoor plants are not exempt, pest infestation is usually more prolific if it grows outdoors.

Spider mites and scale are the usual culprits, mite infestation generally shows up in webbing in the foliage and discolored leaves. Regular dish soap or insecticidal soap solutions will get rid of mites. Scale infestation symptoms show up as tiny white dots on leaves, insecticides and washing the leaves can get rid of them. 

Powdery mildew and root rot are among the common fungal diseases affecting this plant. The infestation is treated with fungicides. However, severe root rot might involve drastic treatment such as disposing of affected plants and propagating healthy stems. Monitor the frequency of how you water the plant to avoid waterlogging.

If you’ve notice brown stems, it’s probable that the problem also extends to the roots. This usually indicates that the soil isn’t draining properly or the plant is over-watered. Stop watering the plant and add more drainage holes under the container. 

Arid air can cause yellow leaves, often leading to leaf burn, particularly when leaf margins turn brown. Transfer the plant to a humid location and protect it from drafts. 

Insufficient light can make the leaves drop off and provide the plant with more light if not, the plant can die. As mentioned above this plant needs full sunlight.

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