The Heath Family

Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Cowberry Shallon Common Bilberry

What are they?

The heather family is well known for its dislike of chalky soil, for carpeting great swathes of heathland with brilliant colour in late summer and for providing a number of our garden ornamental plants. Apart from their love of acid soils, the members of this family are rather diverse, but most are woody trees, shrubs or low subshrubs. This page covers most of the family other than heaths and heathers. The common link with most of these species is the white (or pale pink), five-petalled flowers that are fused together into a flask-like or bell-like tube, but otherwise they are very variable in their leaves and fruits. The Vaccinium genus includes the highbush blueberries of North America, but our species are typically much smaller, low-growing subshrubs.

Where are they found?

Acid soils are scarce in East Anglia and, although many of these plants are very common in northern and western Britain, they are very local here and often confined to just one or two sites on acid heaths or bogs in the west of the region. Some of the species have been introduced as garden ornamentals and thus may occasionally be found as garden relics or escapes in urban or suburban situations, but they mostly don't do well on East Anglian soils. Rather oddly, however, members of this family are frequently planted by the public on heathy ground, often seemingly in commemoration of a lost family member or pet.

Identification

Most species can be quite easily told apart by a combination of leaf and fruit features, as well as subtle differences in the shape of the flowers and their arrangement on the stems.



Bog Cranberry      Vaccinium oxycoccos

Native in acid sphagnum bogs. Now extinct in a number of its former locations and confined to just three or four locations in West Norfolk. Flowers June to August. A tiny, trailing plant with slender stems; leaves 0.6-1.0cm long. Fruit cream-coloured at first, becoming red when ripe.

Bog Cranberry Bog Cranberry
Leaves
Fruit


Cowberry      Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Introduced in East Anglia at two Norfolk sites, but probably no longer present; native in northern and western Britain. Flowers June to August. A subshrub to 50cm in height; leaves 1-3cm long with distinctive, glandular dots on the underside. Fruit dark red.

Cowberry Cowberry Cowberry Cowberry
Habit
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Cowberry Cowberry Cowberry
Leaves
Leaf underside
Fruit


Common Bilberry      Vaccinium myrtillus

Introduced in East Anglia at single sites in both Norfolk and Suffolk; native in northern and western Britain. Flowers April to June. A subshrub to 50cm in height; leaves 1-3cm long with toothed margins. Flowers pale pink, darkening with age; fruit blue-black.

Common Bilberry Common Bilberry Common Bilberry Common Bilberry
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Flower
Common Bilberry Common Bilberry
Leaves
Fruit


Shallon      Gaultheria shallon

Introduced from western North America and an occasional garden escape on acid soils in Norfolk and Suffolk. Flowers May to June. A low shrub that may reach one metre in height but often less; leaves 4-12cm long, evergreen, tough and leathery. Flowers pale pink, in one-sided spikes; fruit purple.

Shallon Shallon Shallon Shallon
Habit
Flower buds
Flowers
Flowers
Shallon Shallon Shallon
Leaves
Leaves
Leaves


Prickly Heath      Gaultheria mucronata

Introduced from Chile and an occasional garden escape on acid soils in Norfolk and Suffolk. Recently found where presumably planted on heathland near Sheringham. Flowers May to June. A low shrub that may reach 1.5m in height; leaves 0.5-14cm long, evergreen, tough and spiny. Flowers white, single in the leaf axils; fruit various shades of red, pink or white.

Prickly Heath Prickly Heath Prickly Heath
Leaves
Leaf
Leaf undersides
Prickly Heath Prickly Heath
Fruit
Fruit


Bog-rosemary      Andromeda polifolia

Native in western and northern Britain in acidic sphagnum bogs but declining and now long extinct in East Anglia, having been recorded in West Norfolk in the 19th Century. Flowers May to August. A creeping subshrub with leaves 1-4cm long, evergreen, with strongly inrolled margins. Flowers white on long stalks.

Bog-rosemary Bog-rosemary Bog-rosemary
Habit
Flowers
Leaves


Common Crowberry      Empetrum nigrum

Native in western and northern Britain but absent in East Anglia but for two records made in NE Norfolk in 1967 which may have involved naturally bird-sown plants. Flowers June to September. A low shrub that may grow to a metre in height but often much less. Leaves 0.3-0.7cm long, evergreen, thick and fleshy. Flowers dark red with long, protruding stamens. Fruit dark red, ripening black. For a long time, crowberry was in its own family (Empetraceae) but is now placed in the heath family.

Common Crowberry Common Crowberry
Habit
Leaves and fruit


Mediterranean Strawberry-tree      Arbutus unedo

Introduced from the Mediterranean region as a garden ornamental and occasionally recorded as surviving where originally planted in churchyards. Flowers September to December. A spreading tree to 10m in height. Leaves 2-11cm long, evergreen. Flowers white, in small bunches. Fruit yellow, ripening through orange to red. The fruits take a year to ripen and thus, fruits and flowers are often present on the tree at the same time. The fruits are edible but rather tasteless. Bark grey, but with a rich reddish colour on younger branches and peeling readily.

Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree
Habit
Flowers
Flowers
Leaf
Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree Mediterranean Strawberry-tree
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Fruit
Bark
Bark