Adorable Ericas

It’s hard to choose favorites, but I’m perennially drawn to the beautiful flowers of the Ericaceae (the heath or heather family), be they on trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs, or herbs. I’m writing this after eating a bowl of blueberries, thinking about the other edible ericaceous fruits: cranberries, bilberries, crowberries, lingonberries, huckleberries. Gardeners in the mid-Atlantic states grow azaleas and rhododendrons, Japanese andromeda, leucothoe, zenobia. Real garden geeks (e.g. me) seek out specimen plants like enkianthus. Sourwood is one of the most beautiful trees, though very difficult to grow in a home landscape.

Actually many ericaceous plants are difficult to grow. They usually require humusy, acidic soil, and are often shallow-rooted, hence easily disturbed and damaged. And quite a few of them are mycorrhizal (meaning they can only grow in symbiosis with certain soil fungi).

Then there are the wildflowers. In the mid-Atlantic we’re blessed with a good variety: Indian pipe and pinesap, spotted wintergreen, sweetbells, shinleaf, deerberry, mountain laurel, and the stunning pinxter azalea.

It’s a big family, represented in many habitats around the world. Of course Iceland has its share, too, ten species or so. I saw six, two of them not flowering but identifiable nonetheless (heather and crowberry).

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Vaccinium myrtillus
bilberry, whortleberry
Icelandic: aðalbláberjalyng

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Vaccinium uliginosum
bog bilberry
Icelandic: bláberjalyng

 

Bilberries are in the same genus as blueberries, but I can’t tell you if they taste similar. I saw both species near Akureyri, and bog bilberry also near Húsafell. Bog bilberry is very widely distributed around Iceland, bilberry less so. In Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland, Hörður Kristinsson states that the latter grows “where snow cover is ensured throughout winter”. Interestingly this does not include the interior highlands, presumably because the combination of windiness and lack of substantive vegetative ground cover means that fallen snow just doesn’t stay put.

Both species are sub-shrubs: they have woody stems, but never grow more than a foot tall. In North America, bilberry is found in the mountainous West from Arizona to British Columbia (but not California). Bog bilberry has a much wider range, including Greenland, all of Canada, most of the American West, parts of the upper Great Lakes States, and New England.

Both species have some interesting characteristics, including usefulness in rehabilitating disturbed areas, and bog bilberry is tolerant of high levels of heavy metals in soils. Read more about them on the USFS website: bilberry, bog bilberry.

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Next time, the other two ericaceous species.

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