Garden Bells are Ringing: the Heath Family

This is an update to an original tale published by Loret T. Setters on April 13, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments and find working links to other stories.

Rusty Lyonia lives up to its name with the colorful pubescence
Rusty Lyonia lives up to its name with the colorful pubescence

I love spring. You can almost hear the pretty bell flowers of a few shrubs in my native plant garden ringing as they sway in the breeze. I’m talking about members of the Heath (Ericaceae) family. The Heath family includes about 70 genera with over 1,500 species of plants. I’m sure you have at least one offering from this extensive family in your own garden (think: azaleas, rhododendrons, laurels, blueberries or cranberries as potential candidates). This spring I had 5 different species in bloom in my garden.

Coastalplain Staggerbush a.k.a. Rusty Lyonia has creamy flowers that are urceolate.
Coastalplain Staggerbush a.k.a. Rusty Lyonia has creamy flowers that are urceolate.

Two members of the Lyonia genus are residents in my natural area. Coastalplain Staggerbush (L. fruticosa) is one of the more visually interesting plants. The common name of Rusty Lyonia comes from the colorful pubescence that is sprinkled over the new growth of leaves. It is thought to protect new growth from harmful insects. This shrub is found in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It has a high drought tolerance yet holds its own in areas inundated by seasonal rains. It is popular with deer and pollinators.

The flowers of Fetterbush change as they age
The flowers of Fetterbush change color as they age

The second member of this genus is Fetterbush (L. lucida). The native range covers a bit more of the southeast. The pretty flowers, which can be a rich dark or pale pink depending upon the age of bloom, are constantly abuzz at my place. Solitary bees seem especially enamoured of this beauty. This species may be toxic to livestock and “specific use of Fetterbush by wildlife has not been reported” although the habitat associated with it are important to a huge variety of southeastern wildlife including the “black bear, white-tailed deer, bobcat, marsh rabbit, squirrels, diamond-back rattlesnake, alligators, pine barrens tree frog, and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.”

Pale Pink and pretty is Fetterbush
Pale Pink and pretty is Fetterbush

Next up is Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.). There is a native species of blueberry in nearly every state in the US (click on the “Subordinate Taxa” tab to bring up the maps of species appropriate for your area).  My restored area produces Shiny Blueberry (V. myrsinites) which is evergreen but has a low compact growth with fruits smaller than cultivated. Still, they are tasty to many mammals (including me) and birds such as ruffed grouse, wild turkey, quail and the northern bobwhite.

Shiny Blueberry has compact bell shaped flowers
Shiny Blueberry has compact bell shaped flowers

Other bird species that use a larger variety of Vaccinium spp. include ring-necked pheasant, scarlet tanager, gray catbird, thrushes, towhees, thrashers, and bluebirds. This genus of plants has excellent wildlife benefit and is a worthy addition to any wildlife or edible garden.

Fruits of Shiny Blueberry are tasty and attract wildlife
Fruits of Shiny Blueberry are tasty and attract wildlife

In 2012 I purchased a Tree Sparkleberry (V. arboreum) at a native plant sale to extend my Heath family collection.

Sparkleberry newly planted in 2012
Sparkleberry newly planted in 2012

It was a slow grow in the beginning, but I finally got some fruit in 2016 and it appears to be established and ready to reach high to the sky.  Often new plantings work to establish their root systems for the first few years so don’t be overly concerned if your plant isn’t producing abundant leaves or fruits during this important establishment time.

In 2016 it has produced red fruits
2016: first year for the Sparkleberry fruit

Finally, I have a small smattering of Dwarf Huckleberry (Gaylussacia dumosa) which look very similar to blueberries.

Huckleberry flowers may be the prettiest Heath of all
Huckleberry flowers may be the prettiest Heath of all

It is, however, a different genus. Gaylussacia spp. are native to eastern US. This genus of plants is known to provide extensive wildlife benefit including food for multiple mammals and birds, nesting cover for birds and it also serves as a larval host for The Huckleberry Sphinx, (Paonias astylus). Henry’s Elfin and the Brown Elfin within their range. They also are a nectar source for bumblebees and other native bees. Definitely a worthy addition to the garden if appropriate for your area.
huckleberry042510

So, make a visit to your local native plant nursery and explore all the options of the Heath Family. You’ll be glad you did and so will your local wildlife.

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