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Erica carnea: growing & caring for winter heath

Winter heath (Erica carnea), also known as winter flowering heather, spring heath or alpine heath, makes a wonderful addition to any garden or balcony as it blooms in the bleak months between January and April.

Pink variety of Erica carnea
Erica carnea is an evergreen shrub that flowers between January and April [Photo: Iva Vagnerova/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting winter flowering heather in your garden or on your balcony will allow you to enjoy flowering plants even in the winter. Read on to find out how to cultivate and care for winter heath plants as well as how to get them through winter.

Winter heath: flowering time and characteristics

Almost all gardens have an array of flowering plants to be admired during the summer, but in winter things usually look a little bleaker. Winter heath offers a nice exception as this low-growing shrub flowers in winter. It belongs to the heather genus (Erica) which makes it a member of the heath family (Ericaceae). Winter heath is native to western, central and southern Europe, as well as parts of Morocco, and can be found anywhere from the lowlands to high alpine regions.

The branches of this evergreen dwarf shrub grow to a maximum height of 30 cm and are covered with needle-like, rolled-up leaves that remain on the plant all year round. Winter heath usually flowers from January to April, making it an early flowering shrub. The flower buds are formed in the autumn of the previous year. Lots of blooms form along one side of individual flower branches, with each flower being hermaphrodite and double-sheathed. In their wild form, winter heath has a red sepal and white, pink or red petals. Eight dark stamens stick out from tube-shaped flowers. In a dry period later in the summer, the plant releases its seeds which are dispersed by wind.

Bee feeding on winter heath
Winter flowering heather provides lots of insects with much-needed nectar after the barren winter months [Photo: diwali/ Shutterstock.com]

Is the winter heath bee-friendly?
Due to its early flowering time, the winter heath is an important plant for bees when they first emerge after the winter. And bees are in turn necessary for pollinating winter-flowering heather. Winter heath is also an important source of food for the caterpillars of the beautiful yellow underwing (Anarta myrtilli) and the narrow-winged pug (Eupithecia nanata).

The most beautiful winter heath varieties

There are lots of decorative winter heather varieties that differ in colour, flowering time and leaf shape. Here are three of the most beautiful varieties:

  • ‘Isabell’: Erica carnea ‘Isabell’ is a white variety of winter heath. It flowers between February and April and grows to a maximum height of 15cm. The leaves of ‘Isabell’ are light green.
  • ‘Rosalie’: The flowers of Erica carnea ‘Rosalie’ are bright pink and bloom from January to May. Its branches grow up to 30cm long and are covered with lush green leaves.
  • ‘Winter sun’: Also called Erica carnea ‘Wintersonne’, this plant’s bright, dense, dark pink flowers make it one of the most stunning winter flowering heather varieties. It flowers between February and May and grows to only about 15cm. Its light green coloured leaves are also very striking.
White flowers of Erica Carnea ‘Isabell’
The variety Erica carnea ‘Isabell’ has beautiful, pure white flowers [Photo: Geo-grafika/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting winter heath: where, when and how

Winter flowering heather looks best when planted in larger groups of eight to ten plants per square metre with a spacing of around 20 to 30 cm between each plant.

Erica carnea can grow in a wide range of conditions: The shrub likes to grow in similar locations to pines and other conifers or on the edge of woodlands and, although it prefers sunny locations, it can also tolerate partial shade. It feels at home in sandy, clayey, and peaty soils with good drainage and a neutral to acidic pH value, though it also tolerates alkaline soils.

When planting into a flower bed, make sure to use a well-draining soil. Winter heath does not like waterlogging or compacted soil. To create ideal growing conditions, we recommend either mixing a good quality potting soil with about a third of sand and some compost or organic fertiliser, or simply adding some fresh soil and sand to your existing garden soil.

It is best to plant Erica carnea in autumn, between September and November. To do this, dig a hole slightly deeper than the height of the root ball. Then dip the root ball in water briefly before planting and covering with about a finger’s width of soil. Also, winter heath grows in symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi, so it is important not to remove the soil from the root ball which contains these beneficial organisms. During the first few weeks, ensure your heather receives a constant water supply.

Winter heath on the balcony: Winter flowering heather can easily be cultivated in a balcony planter box. The same soil-sand mixture mentioned above is suitable for this too. When planting winter heath in pots, it is important to use a planter suitable for winter weather. Furthermore, winter heathers in pots need watering more frequently, as there is no water supply from deeper soil layers.

Winter flowering heathers in pots on a balcony
You can plant winter flowering heather in pots and on balconies [Photo: R. Maximiliane/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary: Planting winter heath

  • Plant spacing: 20-30 cm
  • Soil: Sandy, clayey, peaty, well-draining soil; ideally neutral to acidic in pH
  • Environment: Moderately dry to fresh soil, sunny to partial shade
  • When to plant: September to November

How to care for winter heath

Winter flowering heather is not a particularly demanding plant and only requires a little care from time to time.

Watering and fertilising winter heath

Winter heath requires regular watering, especially during dry periods. It is important not to water too heavily though as it does not tolerate waterlogged soil. During the winter months, only water the plant on frost-free days. It is not necessary to fertilise winter flowering heather as its symbiotic relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil supplies it with enough nutrients. When planted in pots, however, the plants can eventually suffer from an iron deficiency. So, fertilise potted plants annually with a small amount of Plantura Hydrangea Food, for instance, or regularly repot into fresh soil. Yellow sand, also known as coarse sand or builder’s sand, often carries iron particles so adding it to your soil is another way to help prevent iron deficiency.

Pruning winter heath

To keep winter heath looking vibrant and healthy, it is important to prune it regularly. We recommend an annual, moderate maintenance pruning just after flowering. Do this after two to three years at the latest, by cutting off the branches just below the flower shoot. This encourages even growth and prevents the plant from becoming bare on the inner branches.

Tip: If you want to collect the seeds of the winter flowering heather and sow them again, do not cut the flowers off but harvest them after they have dried instead. You can then sow the seeds wherever you want new plants. Of course, you can also leave the plants to self-seed and observe where new winter heath plants sprout in your garden.

Erica carnea care in summer

During the summer, and especially in dry conditions, make sure to water your winter heather regularly. On poor sites and with older plants, a little fertilising can increase the vitality of your plants. However, this is not absolutely necessary due to the aforementioned symbiosis with mycorrhizal fungi. If you are cultivating winter heaths in pots, give them a little fertiliser or repot them during the summer months.

Winter heath covering forest floor
Winter flowering heather looks best when planted in large numbers [Photo: Rudol Rohrleitner/ Shutterstock.com]

Propagating winter flowering heather

The easiest way to propagate the winter heath is from cuttings. To do this, cut individual branches of the winter heath close to the ground in summer and put them in soil. It is important to keep the soil consistently moist for two to three weeks to stimulate root growth. As soon as the winter heath has formed new roots, it can be planted in its new location.

Is Erica carnea winter hardy?

Winter heath plants are hardy and can easily tolerate temperatures as low as -30°C. Nevertheless, be sure to protect freshly planted winter heath plants from intense winter sun and strong winds, otherwise they could dry out.

Is the winter heath plant poisonous?

Winter heath is not poisonous to cats, dogs, or people. In fact, it is even used in traditional and herbal medicine as an infusion or tea.

Fredrik

Having grown up in the countryside, nature and self-sufficiency have always been big part of my life. I live and breathe nature and had the chance to delve even deeper into this interest during my studies in agricultural systems science at university.
Favourite fruit: apples, blackberries and plums
Favourite vegetables: potatoes, peppers and courgettes