Flowering Calluna vulgaris
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Asterids
Order: Ericales
Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Calluna
Species: C. vulgaris
Binomial name
Calluna vulgaris
(L.) Hull

Calluna vulgaris (known as common heather, ling, or simply heather)[1] is the sole species in the genus Calluna in the family Ericaceae. It is a low-growing perennial shrub growing to 20 to 50 centimetres (7.9 to 19.7 in) tall, or rarely to 1 metre (39 in) and taller,[2] and is found widely in Europe and Asia Minor on acidic soils in open sunny situations and in moderate shade. It is the dominant plant in most heathland and moorland in Europe, and in some bog vegetation and acidic pine and oak woodland. It is tolerant of grazing and regenerates following occasional burning, and is often managed in nature reserves and grouse moors by sheep or cattle grazing, and also by light burning.

Referred to as Erica in all the old references, Calluna was separated from the closely related genus Erica by Richard Anthony Salisbury, who devised the generic name Calluna probably from the Greek Kallyno (καλλύνω), "beautify, sweep clean", in reference to its traditional use in besoms. The specific epithet vulgaris is Latin for 'common'. Calluna is differentiated from Erica by its corolla and calyx each being in four parts instead of five.


Calluna has small scale-leaves (less than 2–3 mm long) borne in opposite and decussate pairs, whereas those of Erica are generally larger and in whorls of 3-4, sometimes 5.[3] The flowers emerge in late summer; in wild plants these are normally mauve, but white-flowered plants also occur occasionally. They are terminal in racemes with sepal-like bracts at the base with a superior ovary, the fruit a capsule.[4] Unlike Erica, Calluna sometimes sports double flowers. Calluna is sometimes referred to as Summer (or Autumn) heather to distinguish it from winter or spring flowering species of Erica.


Calluna is native to Europe, Iceland the Faroe Islands and the Azores.[5] It has been introduced into many other places worldwide with suitable climates, including North America, Australia, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands.[6]


Calluna flower close-up

Despised until the 19th century for its associations with the most rugged rural poverty, heather's growth in popularity may be paralleled with the vogue for alpine plants. It is a very popular ornamental plant in gardens and for landscaping, in lime-free areas where it will thrive, but has defeated many a gardener on less acid soil.[7] 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 decorative 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. Cultivars include ‘Beoley Crimson’ (Crimson red), ‘Boskoop’ (light purple), ‘Cuprea’ (copper), 'Firefly' (deep mauve),‘Long White’ (white).

The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit:

  • 'Alexandra' (Garden Girls series)[8]
  • 'Alicia' (Garden Girls series)[9]
  • 'Allegro'[10]
  • 'Annette' (Garden Girls series)[11]
  • 'Anne Marie'[12]
  • 'Anthony Davis'[13]
  • 'Beoley Gold'[14]
  • 'Dark Beauty'[15]
  • 'Dark Star'[16]
  • 'Darkness'[17]


Heather is an important food source for various sheep and deer which can graze the tips of the plants when snow covers low-growing vegetation. Willow Grouse and Red Grouse feed on the young shoots and seeds of this plant.[38] Both adult and larva of the Heather Beetle Lochmaea suturalis feed on it, and can cause extensive mortality in some instances. The larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species also feed on the plant, notably the small emperor moth Saturnia pavonia.

Formerly heather was used to dye wool yellow and to tan leather. With malt, heather is an ingredient in gruit, a mixture of flavourings used in the brewing of heather-beer during the Middle Ages before the use of hops. Thomas Pennant wrote in A Tour in Scotland (1769) that on the Scottish island of Islay "ale is frequently made of the young tops of heath, mixing two thirds of that plant with one of malt, sometimes adding hops".[39] The use of heather in the brewing of modern heather beer is carefully regulated. By law, the heather must be cleaned carefully before brewing, as the undersides of the leaves may contain a dusting of an ergot-like fungus, which is a hallucinogenic intoxicant.

From time immemorial heather has been used for making besoms, a practice recorded in Buy Broom Buzzems a song probably written by William Purvis (Blind Willie) (1752–1832) from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.

Heather honey is a highly valued product in moorland and heathland areas, with many beehives being moved there in late summer. Not always as valued as it is today,[40] it was dismissed as mel improbum by Dioscurides.[41] Heather honey has a characteristic strong taste, and an unusual texture, for it is thixotropic, being a jelly until stirred, when it becomes a syrup like other honey, but then sets again to a jelly. This makes the extraction of the honey from the comb difficult, and it is therefore often sold as comb honey.

White heather is regarded in Scotland as being lucky,[42] a tradition brought from Balmoral to England by Queen Victoria[43] and sprigs of it are often sold as a charm and worked into bridal bouquets.

Heather stalks are used by a small industry in Scotland as a raw material for sentimental jewelry. The stalks are stripped of bark, dyed in bright colors and then compressed with resin.

Calluna vulgaris herb has been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally as tea for treatment of disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract.[44]

Invasive species

The plant was introduced to New Zealand and has become an invasive weed in some areas, notably the Tongariro National Park on the North Island and the Wilderness Reserve (Te Anau) on the South Island, overgrowing native plants. Heather beetles have been released to stop the heather, with preliminary trials successful to date.[45]


The shoots of Calluna vulgaris contain the phenolic compounds chlorogenic acid, its 3-O-glucoside, 3-O-galactoside and 3-O-arabinoside.[46]

Cultural references

Heather is seen as iconic of Scotland, where the plant grows widely. When poems like Bonnie Auld Scotland speak of "fragrant hills of purple heather', when the hero of Kidnapped flees through the heather, when heather and Scotland are linked in the same sentence, the heather talked about is Calluna vulgaris.[47]

The Robert E. Howard story "Kings of the Night" frequently references heather when describing a portion of what would later become Great Britain.

The English folksong, Scarborough Fair, has the line, "Gather it all in a bunch of heather".

The Joy of Living, written by folksinger-songwriter Ewan MacColl refers to his growing old and his saying goodbye to the hills, mountains and his loved ones, the last verse containing his dying wishes in the lines: "Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling, Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind...". MacColl's most famous song, The Manchester Rambler, relates to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, in which he retorts to an angry gamekeeper: "My rucksack has oft been my pillow, The heather has oft been my bed, And sooner than part from the mountains, I think I would rather be dead".

A poem written by Robert Louis Stevenson, Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend, tells a story of a long-forgotten drink of heather ale.

Purple heather is one of the two national flowers of Norway.

See also


Wikimedia Commons has media related to Calluna vulgaris.
  1. Matveev, Vladimir. "Ling – definition from". Retrieved 2010-01-27.
  2. "In favorable conditions, old plants can grow to the height of a man, and have hidden many a fugitive," remarks Alice M. Coats, British Shrubs and Their Histories (1964) 1992, s.v. "Calluna".
  3. C. Stace (2010) New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Parnell, P. and Curtis, T. 2012. Webb's An Irish Flora. Cork University Press ISBN 978-185918-4783
  5. Anderberg, Arne. "Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull". Naturhistoriska riksmuseet, Stockholm.
  6. "Countries (or multi-country features) with distribution records for Calluna vulgaris in the Global Invasive Species Database.". Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG) of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
  7. John L. Creech, note in Coats 1992.
  8. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Alexandra' PBR (Garden Girls Series) / RHS Gardening
  9. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Alicia' PBR (Garden Girls Series) AGM / RHS Gardening
  10. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Allegro' / RHS Gardening
  11. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Anette' PBR (Garden Girls Series) / RHS Gardening
  12. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Annemarie' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  13. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Anthony Davis' / RHS Gardening
  14. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Beoley Gold' AGM / RHS Gardening
  15. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Dark Beauty' PBR (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  16. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Dark Star' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  17. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Darkness' AGM / RHS Gardening
  18. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Elsie Purnell' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  19. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Firefly' AGM / RHS Gardening
  20. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Joy Vanstone' / RHS Gardening
  21. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Kerstin' AGM / RHS Gardening
  22. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Kinlochruel' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  23. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Mair's Variety' / RHS Gardening
  24. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Mullion' / RHS Gardening
  25. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'My Dream' (d) / RHS Gardening
  26. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Peter Sparkes' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  27. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Radnor' (d) / RHS Gardening
  28. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman' AGM / RHS Gardening
  29. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Roland Haagen' / RHS Gardening
  30. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Serlei Aurea' / RHS Gardening
  31. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Silver Rose' / RHS Gardening
  32. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Sir John Charrington' / RHS Gardening
  33. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Sister Anne' AGM / RHS Gardening
  34. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Spring Cream' AGM / RHS Gardening
  35. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Sunset' / RHS Gardening
  36. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Tib' (d) AGM / RHS Gardening
  37. RHS Plant Selector Calluna vulgaris 'Wickwar Flame' AGM / RHS Gardening
  38. Moss R & Parkinson J (1972) The digestion of heather (Culluna vulgaris) by red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus) Br.J.Nutr. 27, 285-296
  39. Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1772), New Ed. (Birlinn Ltd, 1998) ISBN 1-874744-88-2
  40. "Most people today consider it the best of all honeys, but this was not always so." Alice M. Coats, Garden Shrubs and Their Histories (1964) 1992, s.v. "Calluna".
  41. Translated as "noughty honey" by William Turner: noted in Coats (1964) 1992.
  43. Coats (1964) 1992.
  44. Vogl, S; Picker, P; Mihaly-Bison, J; Fakhrudin, N; Atanasov, A. G.; Heiss, E. H.; Wawrosch, C; Reznicek, G; Dirsch, V. M.; Saukel, J; Kopp, B (2013). "Ethnopharmacological in vitro studies on Austria's folk medicine--an unexplored lore in vitro anti-inflammatory activities of 71 Austrian traditional herbal drugs". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 149 (3): 750–71. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2013.06.007. PMC 3791396Freely accessible. PMID 23770053.
  45. " - de beste bron van informatie over cabweb.Deze website is te koop!". Retrieved 2010-01-27.
  46. Phenolic composition and its seasonal variation in Calluna vulgaris. Mahbubul A.F. Jalal, David J. Read and E. Haslam, Phytochemistry, Volume 21, Issue 6, 1982, Pages 1397–1401, doi:10.1016/0031-9422(82)80150-7
  47. The heather in lore, lyric and lay ... - Google Books. 2008-07-22. Retrieved 2010-01-27.
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