1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Heath

HEATH, the English form of a name given in most Teutonic dialects to the common ling or heather (Calluna vulgaris), but now applied to all species of Erica, an extensive genus of monopetalous plants, belonging to the order Ericaceae. The heaths are evergreen shrubs, with small narrow leaves, in whorls usually set rather thickly on the shoots; the persistent flowers have 4 sepals, and a 4-cleft campanulate or tubular corolla, in many species more or less ventricose or inflated; the dry capsule is 4–celled, and opens, in the true Ericae, in 4 segments, to the middle of which the partitions adhere, though in the ling the valves separate at the dissepiments. The plants are mostly of low growth, but several African kinds reach the size of large bushes, and a common South European species, E. arborea, occasionally attains almost the aspect and dimensions of a tree.

 Fig. 1. Calluna vulgaris.

One of the best known and most interesting of the family is the common heath, heather or ling, Calluna vulgaris (fig. 1), placed by most botanists in a separate genus on account of the peculiar dehiscence of the fruit, and from the coloured calyx, which extends beyond the corolla, having a whorl of sepal-like bracts beneath. This shrub derives some economic importance from its forming the chief vegetation on many of those extensive wastes that occupy so large a portion of the more sterile lands of northern and western Europe, the usually desolate appearance of which is enlivened in the latter part of summer by its abundant pink blossoms. When growing erect to the height of 3 ft. or more, as it often does in sheltered places, its purple stems, close-leaved green shoots and feathery spikes of bell-shaped flowers render it one of the handsomest of the heaths; but on the bleaker elevations and more arid slopes it frequently rises only a few inches above the ground. In all moorland countries the ling is applied to many rural purposes; the larger stems are made into brooms, the shorter tied up into bundles that serve as brushes, while the long trailing shoots are woven into baskets. Pared up with the peat about its roots it forms a good fuel, often the only one obtainable on the drier moors. The shielings of the Scottish Highlanders were formerly constructed of heath stems, cemented together with peat-mud, worked into a kind of mortar with dry grass or straw; hovels and sheds for temporary purposes are still sometimes built in a similar way, and roofed in with ling. Laid on the ground, with the flowers above, it forms a soft springy bed, the luxurious couch of the ancient Gael, still gladly resorted to at times by the hill shepherd or hardy deer-stalker. The young shoots were in former days employed as a substitute for hops in brewing, while their astringency rendered them valuable as a tanning material in Ireland and the Western Isles. They are said also to have been used by the Highlanders for dyeing woollen yarn yellow, and other colours are asserted to have been obtained from them, but some writers appear to confuse the dyer’s-weed, Genista tinctoria, with the heather. The young juicy shoots and the seeds, which remain long in the capsules, furnish the red grouse of Scotland with the larger portion of its sustenance; the ripe seeds are eaten by many birds. The tops of the ling afford a considerable part of the winter fodder of the hill flocks, and are popularly supposed to communicate the fine flavour to Welsh and Highland mutton, but sheep seldom crop heather while the mountain grasses and rushes are sweet and accessible. Ling has been suggested as a material for paper, but the stems are hardly sufficiently fibrous for that purpose. The purple or fine-leaved heath, E. cinerea (fig. 2), one of the most beautiful of the genus, abounds on the lower moors and commons of Great Britain and western Europe, in such situations being sometimes more prevalent than the ling. The flowers of both these species yield much honey, furnishing a plentiful supply to the bees in moorland districts; from this heath honey the Picts probably brewed the mead said by Boetius to have been made from the flowers themselves.

Fig. 2. Erica cinerea.

The genus contains about 420 known species, by far the greater part being indigenous to the western districts of South Africa, but it is also a characteristic genus of the Mediterranean region, while several species extend into northern Europe. No species is native in America, but ling occurs as an introduced plant on the Atlantic side from Newfoundland to New Jersey. Five species occur in Britain: E. cinerea, E. tetralix (cross-leaved heath), both abundant on heaths and commons, E. vagans, Cornish heath, found only in West Cornwall, E. ciliaris in the west of England and Ireland and E. mediterranea in Ireland. The three last are south-west European species which reach the northern limit of their distribution in the west of England and Ireland. E. scoparia is a common heath in the centre of France and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, forming a spreading bush several feet high. It is known as bruyère, and its stout underground rootstocks yield the briar-wood used for pipes.

The Cape heaths have long been favourite objects of horticulture. In the warmer parts of Britain several will bear exposure to the cold of ordinary winters in a sheltered border, but most need the protection of the conservatory. They are sometimes raised from seed, but are chiefly multiplied by cuttings “struck” in sand, and afterwards transferred to pots filled with a mixture of black peat and sand; the peat should be dry and free from sourness. Much attention is requisite in watering heaths, as they seldom recover if once allowed to droop, while they will not bear much water about their roots: the heath-house should be light and well ventilated, the plants requiring sun, and soon perishing in a close or permanently damp atmosphere; in England little or no heat is needed in ordinary seasons. The European heaths succeed well in English gardens, only requiring a peaty soil and sunny situation to thrive as well as in their native localities: E. carnea, mediterranea, ciliaris, vagans, and the pretty cross-leaved heath of boggy moors, E. Tetralix, are among those most worthy of cultivation. The beautiful large-flowered St Dabeoc’s heath, belonging to the closely allied genus Dabeocia, is likewise often seen in gardens. It is found in boggy heaths in Connemara and Mayo, and is also native in West France, Spain and the Azores.

A beautiful work on heaths is that by H. C. Andrews, containing coloured engravings of nearly 300 species and varieties, with descriptions in English and Latin (4 vols., 1802–1805).