Calluna vulgaris is the sole species in the genus Calluna in the family Ericaceae. It is the true Heather of Europe. It is a small shrub growing to 20-50 cm tall (rarely to 1 m), and is found widely in Europe and Asia Minor on well-drained acidic soils in open sunny situations and in moderate shade. It is tolerant of moderate grazing and can regenerate from occasional burning. It is a common component of heathland habitats.
It is separated from the closely related genus Erica by its four-parted corolla and calyx. The flowers emerge in late summer, and in the wild species these are usually in purple or mauve shades.
Heather is an important food source for various animals such as sheep and deer, which can graze the tips of the plants when snow covers low growing vegetation. Red Grouse feed on young shoots and seeds. Both adult and larva of the Heather Beetle Lochmaea suturalis feed on it, and can cause extensive mortality in some instances. The larva of Lepidoptera species including Emperor Moth, The Engrailed, Lesser Yellow Underwing, Autumnal Rustic, True Lover's Knot and Ingrailed Clay also feed on the plant. The flowers are sometimes eaten by the larva of another moth, the Double-striped Pug.
Cultivation and uses of heather
Heather is a popular ornamental plant in gardens and for landscaping. There are many named cultivars selected for variation in flower colour, and for different foliage colour and growing habits.
Different cultivars have flower colours ranging from white, through pink and a wide range of purples, and including reds. The flowering season with different cultivars extends from late July to November in the northern hemisphere. The flowers may turn brown but still remain on the plants over winter, and this can lead to interesting effects.
Cultivars with ornamental foliage are usually selected for reddish and golden leaf colour. A few forms can be silvery grey. Many of the ornamental foliage forms change colour with the onset of winter weather, usually increasing in intensity of colour. Some forms are grown for distinctive young spring foliage.
The plant was introduced to New Zealand and has become an invasive weed in some areas, notably the Tongariro National Park, overgrowing native plants. Heather Beetles have been released to stop the heather, with preliminary trials successful to date.
The generic name Calluna is derived from a Greek word meaning 'to sweep', as the plant was used to make brooms. The specific name vulgaris is derived from a Latin word for 'common'.
Heather is a national flower of Scotland, secondary to the thistle.
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