Heather – Symbolism and Meaning

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Known for its feathery spikes of purple flowers, heather is an evergreen shrub that adds a rustic touch to summer landscapes. These flowers come in a variety of colors and usually bloom in an open field and mountain cliffs, adding beauty to the surroundings. Here’s a closer look at its interesting history and significance today.

What is heather?

Also referred to as Calluna vulgaris, heather is a flowering shrub from the Calluna genus of the Ericaceae family. It’s native to the boglands of Europe and widespread in North America and Asia. Do you know the term calluna is derived from the Greek word for cleanse or beautify? It’s actually a reference to the traditional use of the plant where its large stems were made into brooms.

Heather’s bell-shaped flowers are commonly seen in purple, but there’re pinks, mauves, reds and whites too. Also, heather is distinguished by its dry texture, purple stems and scale-like leaves. It usually blooms in the late summer to mid-fall, making it an attractive groundcover shrub. In some varieties, the flower may eventually turn brown, yet remains on the plant for a long time.

heather flower

A Myth about the Heather Flower

Heather has a rich folklore history in Scotland. The legend has it that a woman named Malvina was engaged to Oscar, a warrior who died in a battle. She heard the unfortunate news from a messenger, who gave her heather flowers as a symbol of Oscar’s love.

It’s said that the flower had a bright pink color, but as her tears fell on them they turned white. Even though she was deeply saddened by his loss, she wished happiness, luck and love for everyone.

It’s thought that the Victorians adopted Scottish traditions, so they probably associated the legend with the flower’s symbolism. White heather is regarded as a good luck charm and many people still pick them when they see them.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Heather Flower

It’s impressive how these blooms have gained symbolic meanings in many different cultures around the world. Here are some of them:

  • A Symbol of Protection – White heather was used as an amulet against violent crimes. According to a Scottish legend, they won’t grow in places where blood has been shed. Also, it’s thought that the flowers bloom where fairies have been.
  • A Symbol of Good Luck – In Scotland, it’s a tradition to put a sprig of these blooms in a bridal bouquet, in hopes of attracting luck in marriage. It’s even called the Scottish Heather and is believed to make wishes come true. During the 16th century, a Scottish clan won a battle supposedly because they placed white heathers in their bonnets, which likely influenced the association of the flower. Heather was also quite hard to find during Victorian times, so finding it was associated with luck.
  • Balance  –Some believe that wearing pink heather will bring balance to a relationship whether beginning or ending one.
  • Purity and Refinement – In Scotland, red heather is thought to be stained with blood of men and women due to brutal clan wars, but white heathers are believed to remain pure. Eventually, the flower itself regardless of its color became associated with purity. More than that, these blooms grow in boglands and moorlands, but they remain ethereal and beautiful.
  • In some contexts, heathers also represent solitude and healing from within. Some even associate the bloom with confidence and independence since they tend to grow in most challenging environments.
Heather symbolism

Heather also has specific meanings based on its color:

  • Purple heather represents beauty, admiration, and solitude.
  • Pink heather symbolizes good luck.
  • White heather signifies protection from danger.
  • Red heather is commonly seen as bad luck because it’s the color of blood.

Uses of the Heather Flower throughout History

Surprisingly, heather IS more than just an ornamental shrub, as the plant has a number of economic, industrial and medicinal uses.  

  • In Superstitions

Did you know that heather was once thought be the material out of which witches’ brooms were made? Many believe that they have magical powers to conjure ghosts and deepen one’s connection with the spirit guides. Also, heather has been used in spiritual cleansing, as well as in healing, wish magic and initiations. Nowadays, it’s a popular belief that carrying a sprig of white heather or growing them outside homes will bring good luck.

  • In Economic and Industrial Uses

Heather was utilized in making mattresses. The dried flowers were placed near the head and the twigs and leaves near the feet. Also, its stems were made into brushes, baskets, ropes and brooms. Since these plants usually grow in boglands, they create peat used in fuels.

  • As an Ornamental Plant

Heather only became a popular plant for landscaping and gardening during the 19th century because they were associated with rural poverty.

  • In Medicine

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During the 16th century, heather, including its stems, leaves and flowers, were used as a treatment for sores. Also, they were incorporated with beeswax as a remedy for rheumatism and arthritis. Nowadays, certain varieties are made into teas to treat digestive disorders and urinary tract infections.

  • In Gastronomy

The heather honey, which is made from the nectar of the flower, is popular in Europe. It’s said that beekeepers place their hives in the moorlands where the heathers bloom. Many describe it as having a jelly-like consistency and a tangy, pungent taste. It usually provides a unique flavor when mixed with waffles, yogurt or ice cream.

  • In Literature

Heather has often been immortalized in poetry, prose and other literary works. The poem Heather Ale by Robert Louis Stevenson shows the significance of the bloom for the Scots, as well as how it grew beautifully in the land.

Poem about heather

The Heather Flower in Use Today

If you’re looking for a low maintenance plant, heather is a great choice. While these blooms are commonly used in rock gardens as groundcovers, they can also be planted along pathways, in borders, in open areas and hillsides.

Since it has a regal, relaxing color, heather is perfect for meditation gardens too. In bohemian weddings, heather is commonly used as a filler flower to add volume and height to arrangements, as well as to add some exotic vibe to bouquets.

In Scotland, people still utilize the plant to make wines, beers and even resin-made jewelry. Its stalks are commonly stripped of bark and dyed in different colors, which are perfect for souvenirs and sentimental pieces.

When to Give Heather Flowers

Heather is ideal as a gift for a loved one going through a difficult time. If you want to show your love and admiration to someone, heather is a great addition to a bouquet, and a unique alternative to red roses. However, note that in some contexts, heather may be viewed in a negative light so check before you gift.  

In Brief

Heather has had a long history as a symbol of protection and good luck and remains significant for its beauty and practical uses. Regardless of the season, these flowers will add a rustic touch and interest to your garden.