Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Winter-flowering Heather

My friend, Tony Pearson, has a patch of winter-flowering heather brightening up his front garden. Years ago (when I were nowt but a lad) this plant was known as Erica carnea - a perfectly sensible name for a something with flesh-pink flowers (Latin carnis - flesh). Then some bright spark pointed out that the first name given to this plant was Erica herbacea, and that by internationally accepted rules this must be its legitimate name. This decision caused an outcry, not only because 'herbacea' is inappropriate (the plant is not herbaceous, it is woody) but because gardeners and nurserymen had been using the name Erica carnea for generations.

At a meeting of the International Botanical Congress in 1999 the name Erica carnea was formally accepted - and there the matter stands.                                       
My top photograph was taken yesterday (4th December) but the plants will remain in flower until we are well into spring, by which time it will be attracting numerous insects. Tony's plants include several cultivars: this pink specimen attracted a Comma butterfly earlier in the year and bumble bees such as Bombus hortorum also appreciate the early supply of nectar made available.

As wild plants, members of the Erica genus are extremely rare in Northamptonshire, simply because the acid soil they require is so uncommon within the county. The closely related genus Calluna is represented by Ling, Calluna vulgaris. This is also rare but I noticed a patch in a disused railway cutting near Charwelton some four or five years ago; I must check to see if it is still there.

As so often, I'll leave the last words to John Clare:

                           Still keeps the Ling its darksome green
                           Thick set with little flowers.

                                                 Shepherd's Calendar, 1827

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