Bell heather and cross-leaved heather are very similar, although the latter favours wetter ground so it is also known as bog heather. Both types are laden with nectar and pollen in summer months so are an important food source on sand dunes for a large variety of insects such as moths and butterflies. It is also important for many varieties of bees where the honey produced from heather is highly prized - it is rich, dark and aromatic. As a result, heather is a favourite plant for wildlife gardens, where many an hour may be spent observing the different types of insects that visit. Heather is also an important food source for overwintering grazing animals, such as the ponies.
Heather was once important to rural economies with many uses from making tea infusions, beer flavourings and orange dyes to thatching and basketry. Whole plants were even used as mattresses where their springiness is said to make them surprisingly comfortable!
Both varieties are visible year round, especially in the north and west of the UK and from a distance in the summer they form a stunning purple-pink carpet across acidic soils of moorland, heathland and coastal regions, with the bell heather favouring dry, well drained substrate and the cross-leaved heath preferring wetter, even boggy, ground. Great examples of rare dune heath habitat can be found at The Triangle, one of our sites on the Sefton Coast, and at Studland Bay in Dorset.
We maintain both heather types on Dynamic Dunescapes sites, to provide food for the insects and also the grazing ponies which help to graze and keep competitor plants under control, that may otherwise overrun and over stabilise the dunes.
Bell heather, which grows up to 50cm in height with dark green needle-like leaves grouped in threes, has dark purplish-pink flowers which emerge between June-September whereas the cross-leaved heath is slightly smaller at 30cm and its flowers, abundant between July-September, are larger and paler in colour and sit on one side only of each stem amongst groups of four slender, grey-green leaves that form a cross and give this variety its common name.