The hall was cleared; the stranger’s bed
Was there of mountain heather spread,
Where oft a hundred guest had lain,
And dreamed their forest sports again.
But vainly did the heath flower shed
Its moorland fragrance round his head.
My flowering purple heather (Erica carnea) is an important late winter/early spring flower for pollinators in my garden. I counted five bees, including a fuzzy bumble bee, on some of
my heather the other day. Although I often like to provide a boost of high-phosphorous fertilizer to my ornamentals when they’re in the early stages of blooming, heather does better in nutrient-poor soil, so I just let them “do their thing” with the bees!
Heather has a surprisingly rich history. Although popular today as a low-growing ornamental that attracts bees in early spring and butterflies in the summertime, gardeners before the Victorian age did not grow heather (also called heath) because it was associated with rural poverty. Indeed, heather is native to the European moorlands; its name is derived from the Old English word, haeth, meaning an untilled tract of land, and it is the root of the word ‘heathen,’ meaning someone living away from the church in the ‘wilderness.’ Heather grows so rampantly in the Scottish moors that it was used to make roof thatching, bed mattresses, and brooms. Sir Walter Scott was referring to the traditional use of heather as bedstraw in “Lady of the Lake.” Such practical uses for heather led to use of the Latin word, kalluno, meaning “to clean,” when separating Calluna vulgaris (common heather or ling) from the Erica genus heaths. The word, Erica, comes from the Greek ‘ereike,’ which means “to break or crush,” reflecting the belief that drinking heather tea would break up bladder stones.
Whether for medicinal purposes or not, heather tea tastes good! Here’s an easy “recipe” for heather tea.
In fact, heather has been used as a remedy for a variety of kidney and urinary tract disorders. A cheerier imbibed use for the plant, however, is for heather beer, crafted many hundreds of years ago before the use of hops by the peoples of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles, and produced now as a trendy artisan ale in a few English and Scottish breweries. A Scottish legend tells the story of a father and son, last remaining members of the Pict tribes who were conquered by the Scottish kingdom around 843 A.D. The king offers the father and son amnesty if they will reveal the secret of brewing their heather ale, but the father chooses to give up his son’s life and his own, rather than reveal the recipe to outsiders.
Robert Louis Stevenson tells this story in a poem called Heather Ale: A Galloway Legend (1890). The first stanza makes it clear how beloved heather ale was to the dwarf-like Picts:
From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings underground.
In the last stanza, after the father watches his son thrown off a cliff into the sea, he turns to the Scottish king and cries out:
“True was the word I told you:
Only my son I feared;
For I doubt the sapling courage
That goes without the beard.
But now in vain is the torture,
Fire shall never avail:
Here dies in my bosom
The secret of heather ale.”
Heather was gaining horticultural value at the same time Stevenson wrote Heather Ale, not because of beer, but due to increased interest in gardening with alpine plants. For the Victorians, heather symbolized solitude because it thrives in rocky, wind-swept highlands. According to Scottish folklore, heather is stained by the blood of war, and white heather grows only where no blood has been spilled; thus, white heather symbolizes good luck and protection. In the 1880s, Queen Victoria popularized the long-held Scottish tradition of brides carrying a sprig of white heather for luck.