What are Painted Heathers?

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Recently, on a trip to my local garden centre, some unusually bright and vibrant, electric blue, green turquoise and red heathers caught my attention!

Upon closer inspection it transpired that these stunning colours were in fact wholly artificial – instead of being their natural shade, these heathers had gone through a painting process. I had never come across this before – so what are painted heathers?

Painted heathers are most often varieties of the Calluna Vulgaris species that have been artificially dyed to achieve a brighter colour and higher impact plant.

Keep reading in order to know more about painted heathers and how to care for them!

Why Paint a Heather?

Heathers are well known for their eye catching coloured flowers but it has become an increasingly common sight during autumn and winter to see the shelves of garden centres across the country start to fill up with even more brightly coloured, painted versions. This is mainly done to create a bigger, more dramatic impact.

Which Types of Heather are Used For Painting, and How Best Can You Look After Them?

The term “heather” is commonly used to refer to both heathers and heaths, even though they are botanically different. This can be a bit confusing!

Heather and heath are actually two separate genera of the the Ericacea family:
– Heathers belong to the Calluna genus
– Heaths belong to the Erica genus

Heather (Calluna)

Heather (Calluna). Scale like leaves.

Also known as “ling”, heather (calluna) is particularly hardy evergreen and a typically summer flowering plant which can survive in rocky areas with low moisture levels. Preferring an acidic soil and a sunny position, it can usually be found growing on heath an moorlands throughout the UK where it often spreads and carpets wide areas. It can be recognised from its short and narrow, scale – like leaves and plentiful amount of flowers growing along the length of the stems.

Usually flowering between July and November, it gives a fantastic display of summer and autumn colour.

One of the most common species is calluna vulgaris which is also known as “Scottish heather” as it is commonly found in the Scottish Highlands.

Calluna vulgaris is the species which is most commonly used for painting.

Care tips for calluna heathers:

Position – Calluna heathers love the sun! They will thrive and produce more vibrant colours when in full sun or very limited shade. They are great for planting in either borders or containers.

Soil – Calluna heathers will generally grow best in acidic soil with a low PH value. They do not usually do well in alkaline, or lime rich, soils. They are tolerant of dry conditions, however this tolerance can take several years to develop after initial planting so new plants will need moist soil conditions in order to root well. Soil should be free draining and plants will not do well in waterlogged conditions. Calluna roots are not particularly strong so the plant will benefit from well turned soil with a finer texture to allow the roots to develop and grow.

Pruning – Calluna heathers need to be pruned annually otherwise you will end up with a woody, spindly plant. The best time for pruning is just after flowering. Once flowering has finished, and the flowers have fallen from the plant, bare stems will be left behind. It is best to prune back about 2/3 of last season’s growth to achieve an overall bushy appearance from which new growth will sprout. Be careful not to prune fully into the previous year’s wood though as it will restrict growth in the coming year.

Heath (Erica)

Heath (erica) – “needle” type leaves and urn shaped flowers

Erica heaths are typically winter flowering, and are sometimes referred to as “winter heather”. Heaths differ from heathers though in that they tend to be less hardy. They can easily be identified by their “needle” type leaves and urn shaped flowers as opposed to the scale type leaves and smaller flowers of the heather.

As a general rule heaths will tolerate a much wider variety of soil conditions than heather, from acid through to alkaline.

As heaths are winter flowering anyway, they are not usually painted for winter colour.

Care tips for heaths:

Position – Plant in borders or containers in full sun or light shade.

Soil – Ericas (heaths) are more tolerant of alkaline soil than callunas (heather), and in fact can be grown in most soil types. Soil should be moist and free draining.

Pruning – The needled branches of ericas mean that they are not bare stems left behind after flowering like calluna heather so they are much less less susceptible to becoming woody and spindly. Pruning of erica heaths is still needed to keep a shape to the plant but it can be much a much lighter prune compared to calluna heather. As with calluna heather, be careful not to prune fully into the previous year’s wood as it can restrict new growth.

How Can I Make Sure My Soil is Suitable for Growing Heather?

The PH scale, running from 0 to 14, is a measure of acidity and alkalinity. PH 7 is neutral, whereas less than 7 is acidic and more than 7 is alkaline. An acid soil can have a PH of as low as 3.5 whereas an alkaline soil can have a PH of up to 8.

If you want to check the PH of your soil you can get soil testers from most garden centres.

Painted heathers are most often calluna vulgaris, which are acid soil loving plants. If planting this variety in containers the easiest option is to fill the containers with ericaceous compost which is naturally acidic. The PH of ericaceous compost will vary depending on the mix but is usually around PH 4.5. If you are planting in borders, as well as digging in some ericaceous compost, you can add leaf litter, leaf mulch or peat to any existing soil which will help increase the acidity level of the soil and lower the PH.

Conversely, if your soil is too acidic the acidity can be reduced by adding a lime additive.

Both soil PH testers and ericaceous compost are available on Amazon below:

What are the Paints Used to Colour Heather Made From?

The paints and dyes used in the process are food colouring based.

Does Paint Wash Off a Painted Heather in the Rain?

The dyes and paints used to paint heathers do not wash off in the rain and are fully weather proof.

Does Painting Damage the Heather?

Applying any paint to a heather is generally regarded as not being good for the plant. It certainly cannot be helping the photosynthesis process, anyway. But below the dye the plant is still alive and will usually come out on the other side and grow through the paint!

The usual life span of a heather is around 25 years. Personally, I have had several painted heathers in the past and they did not reach this milestone – in fact they did not survive much longer than a year 🙁

How Long Will the Paint on a Painted Heather Last For?

The painted effect will not last forever and is only really going to maintain its full impact for the first winter season after purchase. Once springtime arrives the heather will start to grow and develop new shoots. The leaves and eventual flowers from these new shoots will be the natural colour of the plant, meaning you will end up with a mixture of painted and non painted colour. Over time the painted part of the plant will shed its artificial hues meaning that the you will end up with a plant in its natural colour.

If your heather is not looking its best, follow this link to our post to find out more about how to revive a heather plant.

Should I Keep Painted Heather Inside or Outside?

Painted heathers are not indoor plants. They should be treated in the same way as their non-painted calluna vulgaris counterparts! This means that they will need to be in moist, well draining, acidic soil and ideally be in full sun – and the best place to get this is outdoors!

Should I Buy Painted Heather?

blue painted heather – cullana vulgaris

Purists often look down on painted heathers as they consider the colours too garish and at the effect too artificial, especially given that winter flowering ericas are readily available with 100% natural colour. And the painted effect will at the end of the day will only last for a single season.

That said they are great, low maintenance, plants for injecting intense bright colours into displays over the autumn and winter – times when colour and brightness can be in fairly short supply. Whether you have a small area with a few pots and window boxes, or a larger garden, painted heathers can make a real impact, especially when planted in groups.

Although the bright painted colour will only last for a single season, with a bit of luck you should end up with a naturally coloured plant at the end of it that should last for years to come.

My advice would be, if you like them, go for it! Personally I have bought them – even if the plants themselves don’t survive past a single year, I need colour around me over winter and they and they certainly deliver on that front!

Painted heathers are available on Amazon – to check them out just click on the links below!

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