Arisaema dracontium (green dragon, dragon root)
Arisaema dracontium 
(green dragon, dragon root)

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Adirondack Chapter, North American Rock Garden Society

Heaths and heathers

At our meeting in April, we enjoyed slides and a talk on heaths and heathers presented by Lee Nelson.  Lee was the horticulturist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County for 19 years, during which time she and her crew of Master Gardeners designed and planted the beautiful heath and heather gardens at the Cutler Botanic Garden. Since I work at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County now, I have the opportunity to see that garden year-round.  It is, in fact, just like Lee told us and showed us in her slides: beautiful, changing colors as the seasons change, with the Calluna (heather) blooming from June to October, and the Erica (heath) blooming through the winter and early spring.

 Lee also showed us slides of her home garden, which showed the very effective use of heaths and heathers in combination with evergreens.  Lee pointed out to us that this combination makes a particularly lovely winter garden, and the slides of her garden illustrated that.

 We learned that these plants are very rugged and not difficult to care for, but that they require a place that simulates their native environment, especially with respect to acid soil.  She told us how they started from scratch at Cutler Botanic Gardens, mixing peat moss and sand with lots of organic matter and pouring it over boulders.  The best pH is 5.0, although soils with pH up to 6.0 grow beautiful heaths and heathers.  If the soil is right, she assured us, the plants do not need fertilizer, although they will need pruning.  She suggested that mulching was also important, as the plants have shallow roots.

 The Calluna has scaly-leaves, like little spikes, while the Erica has needles, not scales.  The Erica is much larger, growing up to 4 feet across.  Lee suggests planting only one, or perhaps as many as three, but that could take up 10 feet of space eventually!  She also suggested that Erica looks nice trailing over a wall. We learned that Erica should be sheared for size—and that the pruning really stimulates the bloom, too.  May is a good month to prune Erica, Lee told us.

Calluna also should be pruned, but March is the month to prune it.  Lee told us of how she came to understand the way in which heather is pruned in the wild when she saw goats and ponies grazing on acres of it on Yorkshire Mound.

 Lee’s talk was enjoyed by an enthusiastic roomful of members, and a lot of new Calluna and Erica plants went home with members, too—along with Lee’s helpful list of cultural and propagation tips, and resource materials and nurseries.  Grow those heaths and heathers! 

 Krys Cail

 The heaths and heathers sold at the April meeting were from Rock Spray Nursery. Their website features pictures of many heath and heather varieties as well as growing information.  Visit:

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