The glory of Hothfield in August is the purple heather or ling, Calluna vulgaris. This year there were sprigs in flower already in June, and the pink cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix, had as usual started even earlier. Calluna and Erica grow together on the dry heath, only Erica tolerates wet bog.
Richard Mabey writes of these low-growing evergreen shrubs as the raw material of frugal domestic life, along with companions bracken and gorse. So heather here could have been used for fuel (ling comes from the Anglo Saxon work lig for fire), fodder, wattle in daub, thatch, brooms (calluna is from the Greek for brush), baskets, fencing, twisted into ropes, packing material or mattress filling, the roots carved into small useful items, although tobacco pipes were made from roots of the continental tree heather, hence briar from the French for heather, bruyere. The flowers might have yielded orange dye and honey from wild bees. A local volunteer now keeps an apiary nearby. Flowering tips might have been used for tisane or to flavour and filter beer, leann froach in Scotland.
Wildlife was in amongst the heather before humans found it useful. In the same family as bilberries, rhododendrons and blueberries, it provides shelter all year for basking reptiles and birds, hopefully for nesting tree pipits one day; thousands of seeds for feeding birds, foliage food for caterpillars and grazing sheep, nectar and pollen for insects and butterflies and moths, which are food for patrolling dragonflies and birds. Heather needs nutrient poor soil and grows slowly; the progress from fresh green pioneering seedlings through maturity to the eventual collapse of gaunt woody plants is monitored and managed across the reserve.
Gardeners have a wide choice of cultivars of several species including tree and winter heathers to provide flowers almost all year round, a feast for the eye and a wonderful larder for garden wildlife.