Whenever I see this (look left), it reminds me of singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ in primary school assembly; remember the line that went, ‘The purple headed mountain, the river running by …’. Well, that mountain’s head was purple because it wore a wig of heather, or ling.
This particular hillside of heather was at the Devil’s Punchbowl, near Hindhead, in Surrey. The later pictures were taken in Headley Heath, Surrey.
Heather is a shrub, a woody plant. When you look closely at its stems and branches it does resemble a little tree, perhaps bonsai leylandii. This makes it a tough but flexible little plant and I remember as a kid I would throw myself into a patch to take a rest on walks up Welsh mountains. It makes a comfortable mattress, as long as you’re wearing a coat with a hood, and springs back into shape as soon as you get up. In fact, I’ve just read that along with its uses in basketry, thatching, brooms and as a fuel, it was also used as bedding! This shrub is so tough that even setting fire to it is fruitless as new shoots appear within a couple of years.
The spikes of bell shaped purple or pink flowers which are out at the moment were used instead of hops to flavour beer and if you dry out 40 g and simmer them in 1.5 pints of water, you get a heather tea 3 cupfuls of which per day will disinfect your urinary tract and kidneys. In Roger Phillip’s ‘Herbs’ book, it is suggested adding a load to your bath to relieve arthritis.
On Headley Heath, plants book in hand, I learned that calluna vulgaris is not the only ‘heather’. Look closely at this blurry picture, there is another heather growing with a different look: Bell Heather (erica cinerea). It’s not even from the same genus. It’s thin leaves are in whorls up the stem and its flowers are larger and more bladder-like. Here is a close-up:
I also saw Cross-leaved Heath Heather (or Bog Heather) which looks a lot like Bell Heather but with less fine leaves at a steeper angle. I don’t know if these other two species have the same properties as Ling but it’s nice to see all three getting along well together on a heath.