A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to speak at the International Heather Society’s meeting in Victoria, B.C., and just by chance, I had the great luck to meet Kurt Kramer and his wife from Germany. Kurt is the heather breeder who not only developed the very popular Erica ‘Kramer’s Red’, but also more importantly the world renowned ‘bud bloom’ heathers. How important are these in the world of heathers? Well, over 90 million are sold in Germany alone each year.
What is a ‘bud bloom’ heather? They are special calluna varieties whose buds show colour but never fully open. Unlike other callunas, they look fresh for months, often lasting from late summer into fall and even winter.
In speaking with Kurt, two things started this process of developing these plants. He felt there was a need for a better heather variety for the tradition of putting heathers on European graves, especially in late November during All Saints’ Day. Most of the non-hardy calluna varieties turned brown rather quickly. The trigger for his breeding program was the discovery of a very late blooming calluna he had found in Holland. From this discovery not only was he able to develop longer blooming cultivars, but their hardiness was also astounding. With proper planting and location, they will tolerate zone 4. With good winter protection, some success is found in zone 3.
This hardiness factor, along with their long blooming habit, now opens up doors for heathers to be planted where they could never be used before. As the weather turns wet and frosty in late fall, they fill the gap before the winter ericas begin to bloom. Most varieties are reasonably compact, growing only 12 to 14 inches (30 to 40cm) tall with a spread of 16 inches (40cm). Their foliage colour varies from a rich dark green and mid-green to yellow. Their flowering times vary slightly, but they will usually look great from August through November and some even into December. This long bloom time now makes them equivalent to many winter blooming varieties and can give many gardens, with the addition of early blooming callunas, a year round heather garden.
Here are some of Kurt’s top bud bloom varieties:
‘Alicia’ – Still the very best white and very long flowering.
‘Amethist’ – Very best purple and has a nice upright form.
‘Athene’ – Striking stiff, upright stems with bright red flowers. It makes quite a
‘Rosita’ – Has very large dark pink buds and a nice stiff upright habit.
‘Sandy’ – White buds and yellow foliage contrast nicely and last well into fall. A
nice accent plant for containers and small space gardens.
‘Theresa’ – Another winner with year round yellow foliage. Its bright pink buds stand out well, making it a great accent plant.
Kurt has named this collection the ‘Garden Girls’, and we are very fortunate to have all of these varieties available here on the West Coast.
Another innovation with bud bloomers is ‘Twin Girls’, where growers plant a bud bloomer variety and a foliage cultivar like ‘Zeta’ or ‘Zora’ together for a unique colour contrast. ‘Girl Trios’, where three different bud bloomers are grown together as one plant, have also become very popular. These plants are ideally suited for containers and will also create a very nice effect in small and large space gardens.
Other breeders are now taking a look at the potential of bud bloomers, and Dutch breeders have come up with a series of their own called ‘Beauty Ladies’. This new bud bloom innovation in callunas will make a great contribution to so many gardens, and it will be truly exciting to see where it goes from here. I am writing about these heathers now because they are out in garden stores everywhere just waiting for a home in your garden or on your patio.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.