Published: 15 April 2013
Saving the Heather
Leading garden plant conservation charity Plant Heritage is promoting that urgent action is needed to safeguard the plight of heathers which, due to their loss of favour with gardeners in recent years, some are now at serious risk of being reduced to only a handful of cultivars.
Heather is the common name for a large number of plants in the Ericaceae family including the three genera: Erica, Calluna, and Daboecia, and is a perennial woody shrub.

These plants were popular in the past for the length of their flowering, with many varieties blooming for around four months of the year, as well as their low maintenance and hardiness. A fabulous flower for attracting bees, gardeners should be able to find a plant to flower for every month of the year.


Officially Threatened

Recent research undertaken by the charity’s Threatened Plants Project has found that many cultivars of heather have disappeared altogether over the past decade and 60% of the remaining 1441 heathers listed in the RHS online Plant Finder are officially threatened.

However, loss of popularity for this old favourite has led to many once much loved varieties disappearing altogether from nurseries and gardens, for example Erica carnea ‘Mr Reeves’ which has not been found since 1969, and Erica cinerea ‘Lilian Martin’ which has not been cultivated since 1978.
 
Statistics from the Threatened Plants project indicate that 62% of all Erica cultivars listed in the Plant Finder are threatened, and 28 of these are exclusively found in gardens (mainly Savill Gardens) and in the National Collection of heathers at RHS Wisley. 146 cultivars assessed by Plant Heritage have not been found anywhere in Britain and Ireland and can now be officially classed as extinct in cultivation.

64% of Calluna are threatened, with 5 of these cultivars being found exclusively at Savill Gardens and in National Trust gardens. More worryingly 180 cultivars have not been found anywhere in Britain and Ireland. Of the Daboecia, 59% are threatened with one cultivar found exclusively in a garden and 16 cultivars not being found anywhere in Britain or Ireland. 

Sold by Colour

Speaking on the results Plant Heritage plant Conservation Officer Mercy Morris said the problem with the demise of the heather was that it is associated by many gardeners with the heather and dwarf conifer beds of the 70s. “Heathers are now sold in garden centres almost as bedding plants in packs by colour, with little or no information. So there is little to pique the interest of the keen gardener,” she said.
 
As gardeners we can all play our part in reducing the decline of the heather by asking our local garden centre or nursery for named cultivars, possible think about joining a specialist society such as The Heather Society or work towards holding a National Plant Collection of Erica, Calluna or Daboecia. For more information about National Collections visit www.nccpg.com

Calluna Vulgaris. Image Credit: Wikipedia user Aqwis.

Editor's Comment

Back in the 1970’s there was a great trend for planting heather beds with a dwarf conifers; these appeared in gardens of every shape and size in every location across the country. Now forty years later I am writing a report saying that many heather cultivars are at risk, it just goes to show the effect of fashion conscious gardeners! 
 
I am also concerned about which plant species could be at risk next. These recent findings highlight how valuable the ongoing research and survey work carried out by Plant Heritage really is, without it plant cultivars and varieties will be lost before we have a chance to save them, even those we have taken for granted in our gardens for many years.

 

Reported by Chris Allen  
   
 

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