heather



heather defined in 1913 year

heather - Heather (Ling, Calluna vulgaris);
heather - "An empty sky, a world of heather;
Purple of foxglove, yellow of broom,
We two among them, wading together,
Shaking out honey, treading perfume."
(Jean Ingelow.)

In that "world of heather" three kinds of Heath are found in company; first, here and there, in patches, is the Cross-leaved Heath with its delicate, shell-pink flowers clustered all together at the top of its stalks; then, more plentiful, is the Bell or Scotch Heath, whose red-purple spikes form masses of ruddy hue that satisfy the most colour-loving eye, showier far than the first-named, not because the individual flowers are any larger, but because they are of deeper hue and are thickly set up a long spike instead of being a few together in a cluster; thirdly, there is the Common Ling, or Heather, of our picture, which, though the least beautiful, is the dominant member of this plant society - the background of that Heather world on which the foxglove, the gorse and the Heaths paint splashes of colour and amid which, too, the bilberry struggles to maintain a foothold. And all this little community are honey-producing and fragrant, and together form -

"Those wastes of heath
Stretching for miles to lure the bee,"

that we call "the moors." Curiously enough, though Heather honey - reddish and Heather flavoured - is to-day ranked the most excellent among honeys by connoisseurs, Gerard was not of this opinion - "of these floures the Bees do gather bad honey," he says, and there is no doubt that appreciation of it is somewhat an acquired taste. It was largely to this honey that Heather Beer owed its reputed marvellous flavour - reputed only, for the brewing of this cherished drink of legendary Picts is one of the lost arts of mankind, though occasionally in some outlandish Highland spot shallow receptacles are found which, tradition says, are the ancient brewing vats.

The Ling is a remarkable plant, most tenacious of life and hardy to a degree, accommodating in its likes and dislikes, thriving upon soil of all sorts, cheerfully facing much sterility, and only daunted by extreme dryness. Its tough, fibrous roots live twenty or thirty years, and throw up year by year fresh branches - wiry stems which carry tiny branchlets, which branchlets are clothed with a coat of minute leaves arranged in four neat rows and overlapping like tiles on a roof. But minute as are these leaves - they run thirty or so to the half-inch - they are distinctly interesting, and their structure is not at first sight obvious. Each is stalkless and of plain outline, but is rolled backwards in such a way that its edges almost meet behind, and thus the under-surface is the lining of a tunnel. It is into this tunnel that all the water pores open. Just where the leaf meets the stem it is produced back into two little tails. The structure of the leaf cannot be made out by the unaided eye - it needs a lens to show the line of the slit at the back. The object of the close pressing to the stem and the curling back is to minimise the giving off of water by the plant, and to enable it to withstand drought as much as possible. It will be found that in the Bell Heath the leaves are not so much curled or so crowded, while in the Cross-leaved Heath there is still less curling and crowding. Perhaps these three stages of adaptation to withstand drought are the measure of the relative prevalence of the plants on the moor.

The leaves are evergreen and leathery, and, on account of the tannin juices they contain, are not tempting to browsing animals.

The flowers as well as the leaves are very small. They are specially noticeable in their sepals and in their stamens. The four minute green bracts at the base of the flower are not the sepals, though they look as though they were, for the four sepals are large, considerably larger than the petals, and, indeed, quite enclosing them, and, like them, are pink and of a parchment-like texture which does not wither, hence the flowers remain pink and fresh-looking for months. The stamens are twice as many as the sepals, and each anther has two little tails, or horns, covered with hairs, stretching out from its outer side. These eight anthers are arranged in a close ring round the style inside the sepals, their sixteen horns forming a complete and barricading circle. The style is very long, and projects far from the flower. The ovary is at the bottom, of the flower, and a ring-like nectary is round its base.

Now the flowers of the Ling do not hang like the flowers of its companion Heaths do, they are horizontal or even slightly tilted upwards. When a bee conies clambering over the spikes it therefore thrusts its proboscis under the projecting style (which it must smear with any pollen that is on its body), and so strikes against the stamen horns barricade. The anthers open by two pores, but since the anthers touch one another at these very points the pollen cannot fall out until the bee jars them apart as it strikes the barricade of the sixteen horns. But then out falls the pollen in a shower right on to the bee. And so it goes off laden to strike the outstretching stigma of the next flower visited. The ovary is four-chambered, with a number of seeds, and it develops into a capsule. Though it ripens that autumn it does not usually open till the following spring, when it slits in four places, and the light little seeds are dispersed by the wind. But it is probable the wind plays yet another part in the life-story of the Ling. Though it is so very attractive to bees and flies, the plant apparently does not rely on them entirely; its pollen is very light and powdery, and as that not carried off by the bees lies loose in the horizontal flowers - it cannot fall out as it does in a bell-flower - it is blown out in clouds by the wind, and must necessarily powder all those projecting stigmas around it. Though Heather is usually pink, white, or more or less pale, Heather is sometimes found, and everyone knows that the finding thereof is an omen of happiness and good fortune.

As for the synonyms of this plant, besides Heather and Ling it is also known as "Grig," "Griglands," "Gowlins," "Dog Heath," "Small Heath," and "Basam." The Ling, once included among the Heaths - the Ericas, now forms a distinct genus, Calluna, all to itself in the family Ericacece.

But there is still another most interesting point about the Ling. It is one of those plants that lives with a partner, to the mutual advantage of both, for on its roots it carries a fungus, and this fungus can absorb food from the peaty soil in a way the plant could not do unaided. The fungus works this up and passes it on in suitable form to the plant, and in return it draws upon the living sap of its host. This mutual advantage partnership is known as symbiosis.

The periodic firing of moors by gamekeepers is for the purpose of keeping the Ling dominant, as it is specially desirable for the grouse. The firing destroys all the vegetation in the quarter fired, but only for the time being, for Ling seedlings immediately spring up., and soon the plant again is reigning.


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