Heathers & Heaths
Updated: Mar 25
Heather blooming in August at Kubota Garden in Seattle, Washington
"I swung down the road that afternoon toward the village, to fetch Frank from the vicarage. I happily breathed in that heady Highland mix of heather, sage, and broom, spiced here and there with chimney smoke and the tang of fried herring, as I passed the scattered cottages." - from OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 2
Next to the thistle, heather is probably the plant most associated with Scotland. Much of the color in the moorland landscape is from the flowers and multi-hued foliage of heather. The greens, greys, bronzes and purples blend in ways that are reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, especially in summer.
Heather is also an integral part of Scottish culture. It is the subject of folklore, such as the legend of Heather Ale (see below). The Druids considered it a sacred plant. White heather flowers, which are rare, are regarded as a good luck charm and a protection from harm.
From a practical standpoint, heather has been used to thatch roofs and stuff mattresses. Ancient Scots used it as medicine for a whole host of complaints including digestive issues, anxiety, arthritis and what is today known as tuberculosis. Heather is used to make beer. Bees love the heather flowers and make a distinctive honey from the nectar. Heather is a food source for sheep and deer. Like the Scottish people, heather is rugged and resilient.
There are two plants that are commonly called heather. They belong to the same family, look very similar and have the same cultural requirements. But they are in two different genera.
Species: Calluna vulgaris
Common name: Scotch heather, heather, ling
Species: There are many. Erica carnea and E. x darleyensis are two of the most common.
Common name: People usually call these plants "heather," but technically they are heaths.
What is the difference between a heath and a heather? If you look closely at the foliage, you will see that heaths have needle-like leaves and heather has scale-leaves. Another difference is bloom time. Heath flowers in winter and spring. Heather blooms in summer and autumn.
Like most members of the Ericaceae family, heathers and heaths require acidic soil. The moorlands of the British Isles are one of their native habitats. Heather also does well west of the Cascade Mountains, in the Pacific Northwest, where the soil pH is generally between 5.5 and 6.5. Heather does not require much care. It thrives in poor soil and needs little or no fertilizer. It likes sun to light shade and evenly moist soil. Shear plants right after blooming to keep them from getting too leggy.
It is possible to have continuous bloom and color year around by combining heathers and heaths in the garden. In winter and spring, heath has white, pink and rose flowers. In summer and fall, heather has pink, red, white, lavender and purple flowers, and foliage in a striking array of colors: bronze, gold, chartreuse, apricot, grey-green, yellow and, of course, various shades of green.
Many of these plants are ground covers, but some can get as tall as 2 feet. There is a tree heath (E. aborea) native to southern Europe and north Africa that can grow as tall as 20 feet.
Ellen Evert Hopman describes how heather is used as medicine in A DRUID'S HERBAL.
"The flowering shoots of heather are used for insomnia, stomach pains, coughs, and skin problems. Heather, used fresh or dry, strengthens the heart and slightly raises the blood pressure. Heather is slightly diuretic."
Heather Ale - a brew with a 4,000 year history
Fraoch Heather Ale from Scotland with sprigs
of 'Red Fred' Scotch heather from my garden.
On the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides Islands of Scotland, archaeologists have discovered traces of a drink made from heather on pot shards dating back to 2000 BC. Stories and folklore from medieval times tell of the making and drinking of beverages made from heather flowers.
Legend has it that the secret to the art of brewing heather ale died with the last Pictish king. Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend, tells the tale. You can read it here on The Poetry Lovers' Page. Or listen to the words set to music in the video below.
In spite of what legend tells us, however, that wasn't the end of the practice of brewing heather ale. This ancient tradition continued for centuries until it was all but wiped out, for real, after the Act of Union in 1707. On the Rampant Scotland website there is this explanation:
"1707 AD, The Act of Union: After centuries of war Scotland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Despite many wars of independence and Highland uprisings, Scotland had lost its freedom. Many atrocities were passed through Parliament during the 18th century, outlawed was the wearing of tartan, playing bagpipes and Highland gatherings. Lands were stolen from crofters, Gaelic was forbidden and clans were persecuted - a whole culture and way of life was virtually destroyed. An Act was passed which prevented brewers using any ingredients other than hops and malt. Hops cannot grow in Scotland (indeed there is no Gaelic word for hops) and heather ale was all but reduced to legend."
(And this was before Culloden. It is no wonder that those bloody Sassenachs were verra unwelcome in the Highlands by the time Claire arrived. However, in spite of the "laws," Highlanders continued their customs including wearing tartans and speaking Gaelic until after the Battle of Culloden.) Acts of Parliament notwithstanding, this still was not the end of the heather ale story. In 1988, Scottish microbrewers Bruce and Scott Williams began making an ale inspired by a 17th century Gaelic recipe for leann fraoich (heather ale). You can read how they happened to acquire the recipe, handed down for generations, on the Williams Bros. Brewing Co. website. It is quite a good story. Their Fraoch Heather Ale (pictured above) has been so well received that they have added four more ales based on ancient recipes to their repertoire. They are:
'Alba - Scots Pine Ale' - a Viking recipe introduced to Scotland
'Grozet - Gooseberry Wheat Ale' - a 16th century monk recipe
'Kelpie - Seaweed Ale' - an early west coast brew
'Ebulum - Elderberry Black Ale' - a recipe introduced to Scottish Highlanders by Welsh druids.
If you are in the Seattle area and would like to try their Fraoch Heather Ale, you can find it at The Beer Junction in West Seattle.