Returning home last week after a long summer break, I was instantly struck by the vast purple haze of the rolling New Forest heathlands. In August the normally muted brown heaths are transformed by the flowering heathers to a landscape rich in shades of purple and pink. Take a moment and challenge yourself to find the three species of heather found growing here and to explore this protected and very special habitat.
How to identify heather:
Heather is a low-growing evergreen shrub and a specialist in thriving on the Forest’s nutrient poor and acidic soils. It is much easier to identify while it’s flowering in late summer.
Most common is the true heather (Calluna vulgaris), also known as ‘Ling’. Look for it growing with gorse in areas of dry, well drained soils. It has many branched and tangled looking stems, with small delicate pink flowers forming loose spikes at the top of these stems.
Bell heather (Erica cinerea) also grows on drier soils with true heather, but in contrast have petals that form a delicate bell-shaped flower. These wonderful deep purple flowers fade to a paler pink over the month.
Similarly, the cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) have short, rounded bell shaped flowers but clustered around the top of the stems, in a beautiful bubble gum pink colour. A key feature is its whorls of four thin leaves which form a cross when looked at from above. Look for cross-leaved heath in bogs and wet heath – it’s an important plant for walkers to recognise when crossing tracts of heathland. You don’t want to be losing a boot in a bog!
Can you find all three heathers? You might even find the odd clump of rarer ‘lucky’ white heather.
Symphony of sounds:
Relax for a moment amongst the heathers and listen for the rhythmic chirping of crickets and grasshoppers. The heathlands become quiet and still in late autumn when they all die but they have left next year’s generation of eggs safely in the ground.
Listen for the buzzing of honey bees as they busily collect nectar and pollen from the heather flower. Heather honey has a distinctive taste and it’s good to support your local bee-keepers.
Finally, listen to the munching sounds of the ponies and cattle as they graze on grasses and young gorse, and who help to shape and keep this open landscape a very special place.