Today’s new erica introductions are compact, offer many shades of foliage colour, feature a vibrant selection of flowering shades, and many will bloom for months at a time.Today’s new erica introductions are compact, offer many shades of foliage colour, feature a vibrant selection of flowering shades, and many will bloom for months at a time.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

Today’s new erica introductions are compact, offer many shades of foliage colour, feature a vibrant selection of flowering shades, and many will bloom for months at a time.

One of the most beautiful, but often overlooked, plants is the erica or winter flowering heather family. Photo by Adam Gibbs

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We’re all looking for colour to enjoy over the fall and winter months ahead and most gardeners want something that is versatile — easy-to-grow, offers a good colour palette, and combines well with other plants in the garden.

One of the most beautiful, but often overlooked, plants is the erica or winter flowering heather family.

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Today’s new introductions are compact, offer many shades of foliage colour, feature a vibrant selection of flowering shades, and many will bloom for months at a time.

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Many ericas are beginning to show colour already since our recent warm weather encouraged early budding. By selecting numerous varieties, you can easily enjoy a sequence of colour from October into May, and that’s something few other plants can do.

Once established, ericas are easy to care for, but do not like wet feet or extreme drafts. The secret is the right soil blend. Erica roots are very fine and need to be gently ruffled up when being transplanted into well drained, open, porous soil. They are acid loving, so a generous mix of finely ground up fir or hemlock bark mulch worked into the planting hole is essential.

Avoid heavy clay soils if possible, because remediation will be necessary. At the very least, open up the soil with the fir/hemlock fine mulch or sawdust. Even in containers, heathers need a good porous shrub or perennial soil mix which should be slightly acidic. Fine bark, mixed with peat moss and some sharp sand is a great blend to encourage new root development and to help them become established more quickly.

Be sure to water well until they ‘catch’ in their new home.

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I spoke with David Wilson, a well-known heather propagator and grower in the eastern Fraser Valley, to get a better insight into the use of ericas in smaller gardens. He is probably one of Canada’s most knowledgeable heather growers and is also an artist when it comes to designing with heathers and creating containers.

He said that in today’s smaller space gardens, we don’t have the luxury of using large groupings of contrasting heather varieties, but combining individual varieties together in a planter is just as effective.

He likes to use the dark foliaged e. Kramer’s Red with white e. White Perfection, then adds a golden foliaged variety like e. d. Kramer’s Eva Gold, so the trio really shines.

One of the most beautiful, but often overlooked, plants is the erica or winter flowering heather family. Photo by Adam Gibbs

Last winter was very challenging for many of the more tender ericas, but you’ll find the erica carneas are a bit more cold tolerant. I love the dark foliage and deep reddish-purple flowers of e.c. Nathalie.

Wilson pointed out that one of the longest flowering varieties, e.x darlyensis Rubina, with dark green foliage and magenta flowers, will bloom from December until May, which is remarkable.

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I also like the red-bronze foliage and magenta blooms of late-flowering e. c. Winter Sonne. Some contrasting whites to plant near these are e. Silberschmelze and e. Alba White, with its bright green foliage and pure white blooms. One of my favourites is the best yellow-foliaged variety, e. Golden Starlet. I love its low, spreading habit, eye-catching hot lime foliage, and white flowers that last from December into May. For a sophisticated look, e. Mary Helen has golden-yellow foliage and pink blooms February through April. Colourful conifers like the intense Blue Star junipers, orange toned thuja Rheingold and tan coloured t. Golden Tuffet all make great companions. Evergreen carex grasses will soften the look and add a little spark.

Perennials like white arabis and purple aubrieta will add a colour pop in January and February. These containers are a perfect home for a whole series of minor bulbs including snowdrops, crocus, and later blooming grape hyacinths and scillas.

Sedum Angelina and its new offshoots, s. Prima Angelina and s. Angelina’s Tea Cup would also create interest.

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A recent innovation is ericas in preplanted combinations — e. Kramer’s Red planted together with e. Alba is marketed as “Candy Strip.” “Sundown”, e. Kramer’s Red partnered with Eva Gold, is also striking. Wilson also likes to use late flowering calluna Bud Bloomer varieties. The c. Beauty Ladies series and stunning c. Skyline varieties are perfect pairings of foliage and flowers.

On patios, larger, lower bowls make ideal winter heather containers. With the addition of some smaller, colourful conifers, grasses, sedums and winter pansies, you can create a delightful showpiece to be enjoyed well into spring. For the festive season, add some cut winter greens, berry stems and cones, and you have a charming Christmas container as well.

To keep your ericas looking their best for years to come, Wilson recommends pruning them back only when the new spring growth begins, before flower buds have set. Always prune in a rounded form to keep them tight and compact, feed with slow release 14-14-14 fertilizer in spring, and ensure they have adequate summer watering.

Properly maintained, they will reward you with a wonderful display beginning each October. As a bonus, heathers are valuable winter pollinators so when temperatures climb to about 10C, bees will smother them in search of nectar and pollen.

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