Often known for their colorful flowers and stunning leaves, heather plants (Calluna vulgaris) are loved by many. They blanket European hillsides and add color to cottage gardens. However, there’s more to these plants than their beauty! Heather plants have many different uses as well as rich symbolism. Read on to learn more about heather flower meaning and symbolism.
- The Meaning & Symbolism of Heather – The Essentials
- About Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
- Uses and Benefits of Heather
- The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Heather
- Suitable Gifting Occasions for Heather Flowers
- Heather Flower FAQs
- Heather Flower Meaning – The Final Word
The Meaning & Symbolism of Heather – The Essentials
Heather is an important flower to many people, particularly the Scots. Purple heather flowers are seen as symbols of admiration, respect, and love, while white flowers are symbols of good luck and innocence.
About Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
Family, Genus, and Taxonomy
The scientific name is Calluna vulgaris. Heather is the sole species in the Calluna genus and a member of the Ericaceae family.
Other common names for heather include common heather, Scotch heather, and ling.
Botanical Characteristics, Colors, Fragrances
Heather is a small evergreen shrub that maxes out at two feet tall and three feet wide. It has many spikes covered in small evergreen leaves, and numerous small flowers form on each spike.
The plant’s foliage changes color throughout the year, but the exact color depends on the cultivar. As far as flowers go, native heather plants have purple or pink flowers. However, new cultivars may also have white or red flowers.
The plants have a subtle fragrance that some people describe as musky or woodsy. However, the flowers may also have a slightly sweet smell.
History & Origins of Heather
Heather plants are native to areas throughout Europe, especially in regions with acidic soil and shrubby habitat. These plants are often found in heaths and moors in Europe.
Over time, the plant spread to other areas and took root in other countries. It can now be found growing wildly in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States.
Popular Types, Species, and Cultivars
While there is only one species of heather, there are hundreds of cultivars within that one species. Various species differ in height, flower color, and leaf color.
Here are some of the most popular cultivars to look out for:
- Firefly: deep purple flowers with stunning foliage that changes from bright green to orange to crimson red
- Dark Beauty: has dark red flowers that contrast against dark green foliage
- Spring torch: stunning foliage that starts out green with yellow/red tips and changes to orange and purple in the fall
The name Calluna likely comes from the Greek word Kallyno, which means to sweep clean. This is because heather branches were often used in brooms.
The species name vulgaris comes from the Latin word for common.
What Region Is Heather Native To?
Heather is native to areas throughout Europe, including Scotland, Iceland, and England.
When Are Heather Flowers in Season?
Heather flowers typically begin blooming in the mid to late summer and continue blooming into the early or mid-fall.
Uses and Benefits of Heather
Heather plants have many benefits to the environment, humans, and other animals.
Benefits to Pollinators and Animals
Their flowers attract many pollinators, including numerous species of bees. The plants also serve as host plants for butterfly larvae, such as the small emperor moth.
In their native range, heather plants are also an important food source for wildlife. Since they are evergreen, they serve as winter and early spring food for deer and sheep. Various species of grouse also feed on tender shoots as well as seeds.
Heather in Herbalism and Medicine
Heather plants have been used to treat kidney problems as well as urinary tract infections. While there isn’t much research supporting this use, one study showed that heather extracts could limit the growth of pathogens.
People have also used heather to help heal wounds as well as treat enlarged prostates.
Heather Around the Home
Calluna vulgaris has been used for years to dye wool and other fibers a brown, yellow, or yellow-green color. Adding iron to the dye bath can increase the vibrancy of the yellow or green color.
As the genus name suggests, these plants were often used to create small brooms. People used these brooms, also known as besoms, to tidy up houses.
Heather in Food and Drink
The tips of heather shoots have many culinary uses, including the brewing of herbal teas and ales. While heather was used in all sorts of beers, it was often a primary ingredient in gruit—a beer flavored with herbs other than hops.
Fields of heather and hives of honey bees also provide heather honey. Compared to other types of honey, this variety has a thick and almost jelly-like texture when it’s left undisturbed.
Heather plants are beloved for their colorful flowers and foliage both inside and outside of their native range. Due to the variety among cultivars, the plants can be used as low-growing groundcovers or as focal plants in a garden.
Not only are the flowers gorgeous, but the evergreen foliage provides year-round interest.
Additionally, heather is exceptionally cold-tolerant. It can survive the winter in areas as cold as zone four. However, it does not do well in hot and humid environments.
The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Heather
Heather Flower Meaning and Symbolism in Scotland
Heather has long been valued in Scotland due to its association with good luck and protection. And that’s good news, since the plant blankets many Scottish hillsides!
Today, heather is seen as a well-known symbol of Scotland.
The Story of Malvina and Oscar
Malvina was the beautiful daughter of the Celtic bard Ossian. She was set to marry a strong warrior named Oscar.
One day, Malvina was sitting outside, waiting for Oscar’s return from battle. However, she did not see Oscar, but rather a limping messenger.
As the messenger arrived, he knelt down and told Malvina of Oscar’s death. He handed her a sprig of purple heather, which he said Oscar picked for Malvina as he lay dying.
Upon hearing this news, Malvina began crying, and her tears hit the heather. Immediately, the heather flowers transformed from purple to white!
Despite her sadness, Malvina thought of others, saying, “Although it is the symbol of my sorrow, may the white heather bring good fortune to all who find it.”
And that is how white heather became known as a symbol of good luck.
The Myth of the Heather Ale
One legend involving heather relates to the prized recipe for heather ale. While the details vary depending on who is telling the tale, it goes something like this.
A Scottish father and his son were cornered by an enemy. This enemy demands the recipe for the revered heather ale.
The father demands that the enemy kill his son first, as the father doesn’t believe his son will keep the recipe a secret. After his son is dead, the father refuses to share the recipe. He is also killed, taking the secret recipe with him to the grave.
This tale inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write the poem, Heather Ale. The ending of the poem describes the following:
“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.”
Purple Heather Flower Meaning
Purple heather flowers are a symbol of strength, admiration, love, and respect.
White Heather Flower Meaning
White heather flowers are a symbol of purity, innocence, good luck, and protection.
Suitable Gifting Occasions for Heather Flowers
Due to its association with good luck and protection, heather flowers make good gifts for a variety of occasions. Consider giving them for graduations, weddings, housewarmings, and at the start of a new job.
Heather Flower FAQs
What does a Heather flower symbolize?
The heather flower symbolizes good luck, protection, and prosperity. They can also be used as symbols of love and respect.
Are Heather flowers lucky?
Many people consider heather flowers symbols of good luck. Therefore, they can make good gifts for occasions like graduations and housewarmings.
Does Heather come back every year?
Heather is a perennial, so it does come back every year.
How long do Heather flowers last?
Heather flowers bloom for a few months. They begin blooming in mid to late summer and continue blooming into the fall.
Does Heather flower more than once?
Heather plants flower for up to five months each year in the summer and fall. They will form blooms the following year at the same time.
Heather Flower Meaning – The Final Word
Whether they’re covering Scottish hillsides or adding color to gardens, heather flowers are loved by many. Add in their meaning and symbolism of protection, good luck, and love, and you’ll see why these flowers are easy to love.
Briana holds a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Penn State University. She manages a small market garden where she grows vegetables and herbs. She also enjoys growing flowers and houseplants at home.