The heather plant, sometimes also called the ling plant, with the scientific name ‘Calluna Vulgaris, is closely related to the heath family of plants, as they are part of the same genus of flowering plants.
Their Latin name roughly translates to ‘common beauty’ because it grows so easily, and its vivid purple flowers usually add a dash of color to the monotonous browns and greens of moorlands and highlands where it grows.
They are a shrub species of plant that tends to grow very low to the ground, very rarely getting taller than 15 to 18 inches tall in their traditional habitats.
20 inches is typically the tallest you can expect this plant to naturally grow.
They are a native plant of many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, especially in bog lands, moors, and cold highlands of these parts of the world. They have grown well for thousands of years in Europe, North America, and Northern Russia.
Today, however, they can be found all over the world. Their deep green and purple coloring have become a beautiful little fixture in many people’s floral arrangements.
In the wild, however, you can also expect to see them with hardy, woody stems especially in older examples, where elements of both the cold and time have worn the softer parts of this beautiful plant down to its tough survival roots.
Etymological Meaning Of The Heather Flower
The names ‘heather’ and ‘ling’ for this plant are quite interesting, as they are one of a relatively rare group of common plant names that aren’t largely based on Latin root words.
Instead, much of the etymology of these words come from the British Isles and Northern Europe.
Take heather, for example. In Old English, the term used to describe the plant would have been the term ‘hædre’, a term that would have been used by the Northern English or Scottish people in the early medieval period, where large parts of the countryside would have been home to this little hardy plant.
Over time, this original term would have come into contact with the Scottish and English terms for related plants, ‘hathir’ and the ‘heath’ plant, respectively.
As these words mingled together over centuries, the original term was eventually merged with the related heath plant, eventually arriving at the name ‘heather’ by the time of the 16th century.
‘Ling’, meanwhile, seems to have come from the word element that is often used as modifiers on other words, which seems to have its roots in both Old English and Germanic languages.
In Norse languages, ‘ling’ frequently referred to the word element that symbolizes someone or something of a relatively diminutive status.
Given that the ling plant is usually a relatively small, low-growing shrub, it perhaps isn’t too surprising that Norse settlers would refer to the plant this way, especially if they weren’t aware of the local name it had been given.
Symbolism Of The Heather Flower
Heather has often been considered a sign of good luck and fortune in Victorian England, as it was at that point quite rare to find it outside of Scotland and Northern England, very much in the way that a four-leaf clover would be viewed as a lucky symbol by people who find one today.
The heather plan has also been a symbol of perseverance, resilience, strong will, and independence for hundreds of years.
Perhaps this is due to it being able to survive in conditions that would likely damage or kill other plants, while heather can grow and thrive in these isolated places.
Heathers are also popular symbols of history, heritage, and legends in the British Isles. Many stories from the rural parts of the island have referenced this small plant throughout history.
It is for these reasons, and its abundance in Scottish highlands, that this plant would become very popular in Scottish literature, a topic that we will go into more detail about later.
They are also symbols of mystical, supernatural forces in some places across the United Kingdom. In Celtic and Gaelic culture, like with the clover, they are often tied to signs of the fae being present in the area.
Heather Flower Color Meanings
Although they are grown around the world, heather plants primarily grow in two different colors: Purple and white, with varying shades of pink between the two.
Over the years, these colors have obtained a wide range of meaning and symbolism that has been attached to them
Purple: One of the most common colors you will find, purple heath is regularly tied to feelings of admiration you have for others, both platonic, and romantic.
They are also tied to independence and solitude, due to how rare finding these plants use to be in certain regions of the world.
Pink: This variation of heather is less common to find in normal heather plats and arrangements. They are considered romantic love for others, as well as the passion you have for them.
They are regularly associated with femininity and lasting love, which is why gifting another person this flower is a way of showing your feelings towards them.
However, they are also sometimes considered symbols of bad omens, as folklore states that they have been made pink by the blood of the fallen soaking into them.
White: The other most common variant of heather you can find, the white is typically considered a symbol of purity, both of heart, and of body.
Giving someone white heather would be a way of both wishing someone good fortune, and protecting them from negative energies.
Red: This color is very rare to find in any heather. Like pink heathers, they have been associated with blood.
Death and loss are also tied to this particular variant of this plant, more so than even pink heather. Finding red heather would likely be a sign of an ill omen.
Bringing one into your home from outside would almost certainly spell disaster and ruin for whoever brought it in, along with their family.
Meaningful Botanical Characteristics Of The Heather Flower
Heathers is an evergreen flowering plant, meaning that their growth does not wilt or wain through the seasons, and will continue to stay green and active throughout their life.
Their continuous activeness throughout the year is an adaptation that allows them to function in soil that would otherwise be too poor in quality for them to survive in.
Despite what the soft, delicate leaves and flowers would have you believe of the plant, the stems and base of heather are actually very woody and tough, helping them survive and thrive in the cold areas where it traditionally grows, as well as resistant to freezing temperatures that are possible in the winter.
This toughness is reflected in even the more delicate parts of the plant as well. The leaves, for example, are very small and curl at the edges. These adaptations are vital to avoiding the high and cold winds of the highlands where these plants are found
Heather is a plant that favors much more acidic conditions than many other plants, especially in soils that are of much lower quality than plants typically tend to grow in.
Because of this, and the fact that they grow back fairly quickly if a fire has recently decimated an area means that heathers are actually an invasive species in many of the countries where they currently grow.
In New Zealand, for example, they are considered a weed in many natural reserves, especially in Tongariro National Park, where they are currently outcompeting, outgrowing, many of the native plant species in the area.
Special Occasions For The Heather Flower
Heather is a popular plant to have as part of the bouquet at a wedding, especially in places and communities of Gaelic and Scottish heritage.
A stalk of white, pink, or purple heather to the flower arrangement is a simple addition that will add a rustic element to any occasion.
Heather is also a popular plant and flower to incorporate into jewelry and house decorations. A heather terrarium is a beautiful gift to give someone on any special occasion, whether as a birthday or wedding gift or as something to offer someone if they are currently unwell and are recovering.
If you are wondering what colors would be the most appropriate as a good get-well-soon gift, remember that white and yellow heather is considered a sign of good luck, so make sure to keep those in mind when picking your flowers.
White heathers are also sometimes used as grieving or mourning flowers, due to their ties to Scottish-Gaelic folklore.
They are a sign of respect and love for those who are no longer with us, and so are usually appropriate for a funeral, although we would advise avoiding using yellow or red heather for this occasion unless the loved one or their family specifically requests it.
Heather Flower Cultural Significance
Being grown on of the wind-swept highlands of the Scottish countryside, the heather plant became one of the national plants and symbols of Scotland over the years, along with the thistle plant. And as a result, many tales and stories have been told and written about it.
According to a myth from the Pictish people, purple heather got its color from the blood of Picts who had fallen at the hands of Gaels, who had soaked white heathers with the blood of the fallen.
White heathers, therefore, were heathers that had been left untouched by this violence.
White heather is particularly baked into Scottish folklore. The story of Malvina, daughter of Oisín, and granddaughter of the legendary Celtic hero Fion mac Cumhail, is described as gentle and fair by those who saw and met her.
When she was given the news of the death of her husband, Oscar, by a messenger with a purple heather plant, as a symbol of the love he had for her. So great was her sorrow, her tears that fell on the plant turned the flowers white.
In England, the heather was considered a plant of the peasantry by the upper classes and wasn’t given too much thought by many people. In this case, the Latin ‘Vulgaris’ part, meaning common, certainly appears to have turned people away from their beautiful little plant.
However, during the 19th century, British Queen Victoria’s love of Scottish folklore and culture gave her an appreciation and love for heather that made it a favorite plant of hers.
And with the blessing of the queen on its side, the heather became a widely popular plant across the whole British Empire, especially amongst romantics who loved the symbolism the plant carried.
Heather Flower Facts
- Heather plants can live for up to 40 years in some cases.
- Although the plant is evergreen, heather flowers tend to bloom in the Northern Hemisphere between July and September, at the height of summer.
- Heather does not start to blossom until they are at least 4 years old after they have sprouted from the ground.
- They will continue to produce flowers until they are approximately 15 years old.
- Heathers are a vital part of many highland animals’ diets. Sheep, goats, and deer, both wild and domesticated, feed on heather, especially in winter, when their usual grass food is buried under ice and snow.
- Several species of grouse that live in heathlands and highlands, such as the red and willow grouse, will also feed on the young shoots of these plants.
- Heather is also vital to the survival of various species of insect, including many pollinators. Bees are actually able to make honey from the nectar that this plant produces.
- The heather beetles consume vast amounts of heather in the wild and are actually quite devastating when they are in large enough numbers.
- They are one of the species that often helps stop the spread of heather plants into larger territories, and have been useful for clearing out the plant where it is considered invasive, such as in New Zealand.
Heather Flower Uses
As we have already stated, heather is a vital food source for many animals that live in highlands during snowier periods of the year, as few types of grass can reach above the snow line.
For people, heather has been used in a wide range of processes for years. Heather used to be used to make dyes for clothing and fabrics, both for yellow and purple/pink coloring.
Before the adoption of hops, heather would be used in malting processes to help make beers, although this fell out of fashion once hops became widely used in the fermenting process.
Heather honey is also made by honeybees from the nectar it produces. Unlike many other kinds of honey, they have a relatively thick texture most of the time, forming almost a jelly when undisturbed.
Stirring heather honey will make it more like other honey for a short period, turning it into more of a syrup, but will return to its more solid form after enough time has passed.
Heather is used to making wooden/vegetative jewelry. The stem f the heather plant can be molded and shaped, before being hardened in resin, to make a rustic-looking decorative piece. This is not widely practiced outside of Scotland, however.
Symbolism Of A Heather Flower Tattoo
Because of their popularity in Scotland, a heather tattoo is often a way of someone symbolizing their ties to the country, either through living there or through ancestral heritage.
Heathers is also a tough plant, and are symbols of resilience. A person who has been through a great ordeal and come out the other side of it may want to commemorate the occasion by having a symbol of endurance tattooed onto them.
Heather tattoos are very common for that reason.
Heathers are also admired for their simplistic aesthetic and are typically tied to signs of admiration. A person might wish to have a tattoo of heather if someone they or someone they know loves heather flowers, as a token to them.
Their relatively simple design, a thin stalk with purple highlights, makes them a popular choice for smaller designs as well as people’s first tattoo that they want to be simple to avoid comfort, whilst still carrying something of meaning to them.
As we can see, the heather plant is a beautiful, hardy plant, and has come a long way from just being viewed as another plant of the cold unforgiving countryside, and a sign of rustic peasants.
They are symbols of a small, yet tough flower, that can grow where no flower has grown before.
We hope that you have learned something from this guide that has helped you appreciate this moor-bound flower a little more in your life.
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