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The Lost Words July: Heather

28th July 2020

The purple moors are the backdrop to high summer.  I have always lived near moorland and when the dark heather blooms brightly it signals to me those brief weeks when the summer holidays are in full swing and the countryside is in playful mode.  It reminds me of picnics in the Pennines, days out at Dales agricultural shows and bilberry picking on the North York Moors with my grandparents, the inviting sea twinkling in the distance.

My mother’s name and so present in my childhood memories, it is hard to believe that heather is one of the ‘lost words’, nature words removed from the Oxford Children’s Dictionary to make way for the more common technological words of children’s vocabulary.  The loss inspired a set of nature poems by Robert Macfarlane collected in the book ‘The Lost Words’, which has in turn inspired Get Out More’s blogs this year.

Hardy and tough, heather is a wiry low growing shrub which sprawls across the uplands of the UK, especially in the north of England and Scotland.  Heather plants cling to the exposed moor tops, huddling together to withstand the wind and rain that sweeps across the treeless hills. For most of the year, it is a woody evergreen plant that can give the hills a dark foreboding appearance, setting the scene for mysterious novels like Wuthering Heights.  But in July and August it casts off its gloomy outlook as its flowers bloom, creating a purple haze across the hills.  Like the bluebell woods in spring, the flowering heather is one of the UK’s natural wonders, a brief display of vibrancy to be sought out and admired.

Beekeepers know that bees foraging on heather will make some of the best honey around; thick and fragrant it captures the taste of the moors.  I remember one summer when I was about ten, my Dad, a prize-winning amateur beekeeper, asked me to help him move his bees up to the heather.  Fully kitted out in white beekeeping suits, we loaded the hives into the back of the car and drove up to the upper Dales, taking all the hives over several journeys.   On the narrow Dales roads, cars stopping to let us past took a double take to see us sitting there in our spacemen-like hat and veils, with escaped bees buzzing around the sealed car!

Heather helps the moorland hold on to the rain, preventing the carbon-storing peat getting washed away and mitigating flooding in the lowlands.  Heather is also a major foraging plant for wild bees.  Last year researchers at Kew found that nectar from heather contained a natural bee medicine active against a harmful bee parasite.  As the climate crisis looms and our vital population of wild bee pollinators decline, heather moors are another threatened landscape that we need to protect to maintain our precious planet and safeguard our food supplies.

Hold a heartful of heather, never let it wither’, (Robert Macfarlane, the Lost Words).

Heather is an unsung hero, a lucky charm for our times and now is the time to enjoy it in all its glory.  The bright Bell heather flowers first in late July, followed by the paler and more widespread Ling heather in August.  Forming a bushy, scented carpet, heather is the perfect bed to lie back on under a bright blue sky and listen to the buzz of foraging bees or the musical call of the curlew and skylark.  Let the heather support you to allow time to stand still for a while and enjoy the heady days of summer.

By Annie Berrington

Robert Macfarlance on Twitter: @RobGMacfarlane