Latin names: Calluna vulgaris (Ling); Erica cinerea (Bell heather); Erica tetralix (Cross-leaved heath)
Where: Inchcailloch; open uncultivated areas eg. Glen Ogle, Glen Dochart, Glen Falloch, Strath Fillan, Duke’s Pass, Glen Ample
When: June to September
Our heather-clad mountains and moors are deceptive. There are actually three different species of plants that we usually call heather – all with their favourite places to grow, and their own time to flower.
Much of what we see on our hillsides will be ling – its honey-scented flowers filling the air with perfume, and bees, from July to September. Look closely and you will see it has tiny, triangular leaves wrapped tightly around the stalks, with dense spikes of pinky-purple, bell-shaped flowers.
In drier places check to make sure you are not looking at bell heather. Despite its name its flowers are actually more egg-shaped. They are often a deeper, richer purple than those of ling, while the leaves twirl round the stems in whorls of three.
The third ‘heather’, cross-leaved heath, likes wetter places. Its tough, spiky leaves are set in whorls of four around the stem, which made it ideal for scrubbing pots in the days before scouring pads. This explains its Gaelic name, ‘fraoch an ruinnse’, ‘rinsing heath'. Its flowers are similar to those of bell heather, held in a bunch at the tips of the stems.
In fact all three species of heather have played an important part in the lives of Scottish people, particularly in places where trees and grassland were scarce. Heather has been used for thatching, building, fuel, animal fodder, bedding, brooms, ropes and dyes. Today most of these things have been replaced by wood and plastic – but heather still has one important use. It has again become a key ingredient in a special beer called ‘fraoch’ – with some of the heather being gathered in the National Park.