Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

What is heather? what is ling?

The English names given to the two most common heathers in Britain and Ireland –  Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea – cause confusion, it appears that in some places the former is referred to as ling, and the latter as heather, and vice-versa.

In west Dorset in the 1950s and 60s, Calluna was known as ling, and Erica as heather.  In current floras and wildflower books Calluna is given the name heather, and Erica is known as bell heather.

In an article ‘Why is white heather lucky?’, published in Country Life of 15 January 1970, David McClintock, an eminent member of the Heather Society, wrote:

‘The normal white heather – the one that flowers in late summer – is commercially always ling – that is the one that gypsies sell.’  But what did he mean by ling?

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Thanks to Charles Nelson of the Heather Society, and author of Hardy Heathers from the Northern Hemisphere (2011) for his comments:  I spent my childhood in Northern Ireland, and I knew Calluna as ling, and both the Flora of County Dublin and the Flora of the North-east of Ireland use ling for Calluna.                                                                                                                 ‘In pre-Salisbury days (that is pre-Calluna) the names for this plant were perhaps geographically distinct with ling (which has Scandinavian origins) in the north (? and west), which might be considered strange since the native Gaelic names used in those area bear no relation to it.  Grigson says ling applies to areas of Danish or Norwegian settlement.  When “botanists” needed a distinctive name for Calluna – v – Erica they found ling was available for Calluna, and was (perhaps) not ambiguous, while heath and heather were applied without any apparent consistency.’

Image:  Calluna vulgaris, Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, August 2017.

Updated 6 February 2018.

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