Herb Profile: Heathers

Botanical Name: Calluna vulgaris            

Common Names: Ling, Common Heather, Scottish Heather, Gaelic: Fraoch

Family: Ericaceae – Heather Family

Calluna vulgaris – Heather, Ling

Parts Used: Flowering tops (July – September) fresh or dried

Botany & Identification: The Heather family contains many well known acid-loving species, some of which are commercially very important. The family includes Cranberry, Blueberry, Blaeberry, Cowberry and Bearberry.

Heather is a common plant found in Europe, West Siberia and North America (introduced) where it grows on bogs, moors, heaths and open woodland. It mainly grows in acid, peaty or rocky soils. Heather is an evergreen small (sub/under) shrub that forms dense carpets, often growing to 50 cm and sometimes reaching 1m in height. The scale-like leaves are linear, undivided and alternately arranged.

The bell shaped pink/purple flowers bloom on leafy spikes in late summer. They cluster along one side of the stalk in a dense raceme and are rich in nectar attracting butterflies, moths and bees which produce the highly sought after heather honey.

Erica cinerea  –Bell Heather

The UK also has 10 species of heath in the Erica genus, including bell heather, E.cinerea. In Scottish tradition heather (Calluna vulgaris) and bell heather (Erica cinerea) were often written about and used interchangeably. Bell heather has a longer flowering period from May-October with larger bell shaped blooms of a slightly darker colour. In Scotland the third most common species after heather and bell heather is bog heather, E.tetralis. The heathers are so dominant in their habitats that they have given their name to them – Heaths.

Growing & Harvesting:

Heather, like other members of the Ericaceae family needs acidic soil below pH 6.5 to grow. They thrive in a sunny position, but will tolerate light shade

Constituents: Hydroquinone and its glycosides, incl. Arbutin, Flavonoids incl. quercitrin and myricitrin, Triterpenes incl. ursolic acid and uvaol, Coumarins, Tannins, Volatile oils

Energetics & Qualities: Warming, Drying

Tastes: Aromatic, Astringent

Medicinal Actions: Astringent, Anti-Microbial, Anti-Rheumatic, Diuretic, Urinary Antiseptic, Sedative

Uses: Historically, Heather has never been an official herb of medicine but has been used extensively by the communities dependant on this dominant moorland landscape species.

Modern studies suggest that Heather could be useful in medicine today with research undertaken in 2011 finding Heather to have a potentially photoprotective action against UV rays on the skin.

In Bach flower remedies Heather is said to help improve personal relationships for people who always want to talk about their own issues, and don’t like being left alone. Dr Bach described heather people as seeking the companionship of anyone available so as to always be around others.

Urinary & Digestive Tract Antiseptic

  • Modern research has shown Heather’s effective antibacterial action on the urinary tract when prescribed as a tea or tincture.
  • Written records show that people have been using Heather to treat conditions of the urinary system since at least the 1st and 2nd Centuries with Dioscorides and Galen.
  • Heathers antiseptic and diuretic action on the digestive and urinary system helps with pain caused by nephritis, gout, rheumatism and arthritis. The herb encourages the removal of metabolic waste products from the body.
  • Heather tea can be useful in cases of cystitis, urethritis and to break stones.
  • Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi grows in Scotland and is also used by herbalists for conditions of the urinary system. Julie Brunton-Seal and Matthew Seal suggest that heather could be used as a more common alternative. Bearberry is on the European Red List.

Mild Pain Reliever

  • A bath of heather tops was a traditional remedy to ease rheumatic pain

Sleep Aid

  • Heather tea is a traditional sedative, often served with honey

History & Folklore:

In Scotland some of our Heather moorland is the result of overgrazing, deforestation and rotation burning for the grouse-shooting industry, freezing the natural process of ecological succession. This landscape has been with us for a long time however, and Tess Darwin writes:

‘Of all Scottish wild plants, the prize usefulness must surely go to heather. In a typical dwelling in many parts of Scotland until this century, Heather might have been found in the walls, thatch, beds, fire, floor mats, ale, tea, baskets, medicine chest and dye pot, being used to sweep the house and chimney, to feed and bed down sheep and cattle and to weave into fences around the farm’.                               – The Scots Herbal

  • ‘Kalluno’ means ‘to brush’ in Greek, reflecting a traditional use for the plant as a broom.
  • Heather beds were traditionally made in the Highlands by constructing  a wooden frame and packing it as tightly as possible with Heather stalks facing upwards, harvested just above the roots.
  • Remains of heather rope were found in Skara Brae, the Orcadian 4,000 year old settlement.
  • Robert Burns reputably drank ‘Moorland tea’ of Heather tops mixed with Bilberry, Blackberry, Speedwell, Thyme and Wild Strawberry.

Preparations & Dosages: 1-2g 3 times a day

Tea: 0.5-1 tsp infused for 15 minutes

Tincture: Liquid extract: 1:1 25%, 1-2ml

Cautions & Contraindications: Heather is generally considered a safe herb, though it is not considered safe to treat kidney disease unless under supervision of a medical professional. When kidney function is deficient there is greater chance of harm to the body with herbs & other drugs.

References

Elizabeth M. Williamson (2003) Potter’s Herbal Cyclopedia

Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal (2017) Wayside Medicine

Richard Mabey (1977) Food for Free

Richard Mabey (1988) The Complete New Herbal

Thomas Bartram (1998) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine

Dieter Podlech (1996) Herbs & Healing Plants

Anne Barker (2011) Remembered Remedies

Tess Darwin (1996) The Scots Herbal

Bach Flower Remedies: https://www.bachcentre.com/centre/38/heather.htm

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