Originally printed in the Jan. 28, 2004 edition of the Illinois Valley News
For the last few months, a few people in the Valley have gently reminded me that the newspaper has been lacking Tidbits and that my hibernation should be over. I usually agree with them but then get involved in some other project which seems to be more important. Actually estivation is a better term than hibernation, because it was the hot days of summer that motivated me to take a break from writing. Estivation, by the way, is when animals, like desert toads, go dormant in the summer. The toads go dormant after burrowing into the mud of shallow lakes. My breathing rate and heart rate have not lowered by much, so a different term should be considered. You decide but don’t tell me.
Today I was trying to thin out some matted iris rhizomes and noticed a clump of crocus bulbs which have started putting out new growth. Next, I saw the columbine plants are producing some new growth, and garlic shoots are coming up. But the amazing thing was the blossoms on the heather plants at the library. This is still January and the middle of winter. Maybe the plants detect the warmer weather we are having in the middle of January. They will slow down, of course, if we get another cold spell which cools down the plant roots. Not only groundhogs and humans are looking for spring, but many plants are already starting their processes going to begin spring growth. Most of us have noticed that the days are getting a little longer. Darkness does not come as early and daylight begins a little earlier than it did a month ago. Another annual cycle is underway.
Heather is a plant usually associated with Scotland, where it grows on the high windswept moorlands. It is usually a low shrub, but there are many variations in form. Heather, or heath, has small scale-like, overlapping leaves. The flowers are also small, bell-shaped, and rose pink to purple in color. The flower shape is common to most of the heath family or Ericaceae, which includes azalea, rhododendron, huckleberries, cranberries, madrone, and many other common plants of our area.
The common heather, sometimes called ling, has a scientific name of Calluna vulgaris. “Ling” is a name thought to be derived from a Norse or Anglo-Saxon word referring to fire. It was used because dry heather and dry heather turf, similar to peat, was an important fuel in homes. “Caluna” is based on a Greek word for cleanse or cleaner, and is fitting because heather clumps were used as brooms and heather extracts were used as internal cleansers. “Vulgaris” is the Latin word for common, not usually a “mouth washing with soap” word.
Heather was an important part of the life and traditions of Scottish people. Brides and soldiers wore sprigs for good luck, bits of heather were often put in caskets, heather was used to add sweet aromas to rooms and closets, and pioneers leaving for new lands would carry some in their luggage. Heather was also used in making rope, bedding, ale, brier pipes, baskets, tanning leather, dyeing cloth, and roof thatching. Its medicinal qualities were used in treating cystitis, hay fever, dandruff and diarrhea. Heather was frequently mentioned in poems, songs, and stories passed down through the families.
Today, heather is difficult to start from seed but is very sturdy once it gets established. It grows best in sunny areas with slightly acidic soil. It provides food and shelter for many animals and spreads a delightful aroma though the garden. And last of all, heather will make winter more enjoyable.