Notes from the Apothecary: Heather
Heather or ling, Calluna vulgaris, is a short, evergreen, bushy shrub with stalks of tiny purple, pink or white flowers, prolific on moorland or heathland. It’s native to Europe but has been introduced to many countries across the world. It often indicates areas of deforestation, where trees have not been allowed to grow back, so the heather and other shorter plants take over.
I asked my three-year-old which plant I should explore for this month, and she said, “A pink one!”. After some pondering, I showed her some pictures of pink, purple, and white heather stretching across the moors, and she was delighted. So, here we are!
Heather is unique to moors and heaths, dunes, bogs, or very open woodland. Where I live, in Yorkshire, our moors simply turn purple once the heather starts flowering. It spreads like wildfire across an open area, a simile I use deliberately. This is because the burning of areas to flush out game such as grouse for hunters is a key factor in the rapid growth of heather. Indeed, the common name ling comes from either the Norse word lyng or the Anglo-Saxon word lig, both of which mean “fire”. Heather grows in soil and in environments that other plants shun. It is tough, hardy, but also extremely beautiful.
The Kitchen Garden
Heather has a unique flavour and aroma that’s sought after for a variety of culinary treats. Heather ale has a huge legend built up around its creation, while gin experts extol its virtues as a prime botanical for spirits. Heather honey is a big deal, especially in the U.K.
Beekeepers sometimes put their hives deliberately out on the moors once the heather starts to bloom, to encourage the bees to feast solely on the sweet purple flowers. The resulting honey is solid and won’t pour, but spreadable, with a lovely dark colour and floral aroma. Try a slightly warmed blob of heather honey melting into vanilla ice cream. Divine!
Heather honey is a key ingredient of Drambuie, a whisky liqueur that comes solely from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It’s been one of my favourite tipples for many years, and is tied up in the history and legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
As well as being used in so many tasty treats, heather has a history of use as an anti-inflammatory medicine and as a diuretic. Other indications may be as an anti-rheumatic, plus it has some antiseptic properties and may even be antimicrobial, meaning it naturally fights off bacteria.
As with many herbal remedies, the modern scientific research is insufficient to back up these claims, however herbalists have been interested in the potentially positive effects of heather since at least the 16th century and possibly much earlier.
The Witch’s Kitchen
Thanks to various Scottish traditions appropriated by the Victorians of England, white heather is considered a lucky plant. Some wear it for general protection, but its original association was with victory in battle. Consider heather your aid in your own personal battles, or when you have no choice but to deal with conflict.
Heather is also associated with agriculture and managing the land, so may be an appropriate offering if you work with any deities associated with sovereignty or linked strongly to the land.
Heather is also linked to a restful night’s sleep, and having more energy in the morning. Whether this is a metaphysical or physiological effect is unclear, but anecdotes as far back as the 16th century attest to its effectiveness in this manner.
For me, heather is a link between the forest and the bleak moor. There are spaces on our moorland where everything just becomes bare earth, so windswept that nothing really grows there except a few stubborn lichens. Along the edges of these great, empty rolls of land, trees form copses then forests. But between the lush woods and the empty heath, the heather is a habitat of its own. It thrives where nothing else can, providing food and shelter for grouse and other birds, bees, butterflies, and transforming the sweeping brown earth into a purple masterpiece every year. Heather reminds us that we can find our own place and thrive. We don’t have to follow the crowd. If we decide to do our own thing, there’s no need to fear that we’ll end up lost on the heath, because we’ll inevitable find our own tribe; our own kith and kin.
Home and Hearth
Heather has been woven into mats, baskets, and even ropes throughout the ages. Heather branches can be used in roof thatching, and the softer branches used for stuffing mattresses. It’s definitely a plant of practicality and domestic use, understandable since in areas where it grows, it tends to be the dominant species.
Here are some ideas for what you could do with a few branches of heather:
- Symbolically sweep away the old season by using heather branches to dust the boundaries of your home or send literal dust flying out the back door.
- Hang heather above your front door to dispel negativity and welcome in only those who mean you well.
- Carry a sprig of heather with you, in a pocket or pinned to a lapel, for courage.
- Hang heather sprigs above the bed to aid in sleep or restful dreams.
I Never Knew…
The scientific name, Calluna Vulgaris, comes from the Greek word for brushing or cleaning and may refer to the practice of using heather to make brooms.
About the Author:
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author, poet and musician, as well as a freelance journalist.