The witch-broom heather (Calluna vulgaris) developed over the years from a wasteland plant to the colourful garden plant. Calluna accompanied mankind in Western Europe since millennia as a typical wasteland plant. Kurt Kramer in Edewecht used nature, his horticultural skills, and his passion for breeding to jumpstart the development of heather towards commercial value. He is essentially responsible that Calluna today will be recognized as a colourful garden plant. He wrote a true success story by introducing his Gardengirls® to the trade.
Heather plants grow in natural habitats on particular unfertile soils. As of approx. 3000 B.C. people used the agricultural method of slash and burn to gain pastures for their livestock. Those burned areas deserted and were populated increasingly by the witch-broom heather. Around 1800 the expansion with heather plants was at its peak. Only sheep could graze on these heath fields. The heath landscapes known and protected today comprise only approx. 3 % of the former spread!
Bee keeping was already known. One of the widely used cultivation methods was slashing larger pieces of sod. Those sods were dried and then used as litter in the stables. The litter interspersed with manure was incorporated by the farmers in the fields near their farmsteads. Thus, grain and fodder crops could be produced. For most of the people of those times, heather was associated as negative.
Around 1870, artists discovered the heath landscape. More and more landscape painters, for example Eugen Bracht, were enchanted by the beautiful, but often bleak heath. Sand, heath, and moor surrounded by birch trees and pine forests are still today visible in all different variations – mainly painted in oil during the turn of the century at the beginning of the 20th century.
Since the 19th century, heath was used for recreational purposes offering wide spaces for extensive walks. Fascinated by the heather plants, people discovered, that the witch-broom heather showed miraculous deviations, for example white flowers. They broke branches off to take them home. This was the start of the custom to present an arrangement made from white flowering heather as a lucky charm. Additionally, white heather under the pillow was widely seen as a tool to fulfil dreams.
Naturalists and botanists explored the heath. The botanist Paul Graebner for example described heath already as of 1895. In 1927, the Dutch Joh. Jansen published a newspaper article about Calluna. The micro-biologist Willem Beijerinck wrote a monography about Calluna published after his death in Amsterdam in 1940. In his work he mentioned bud-bloomers the first time ever.
Horticulturists propagated these plants, searched specifically for them, and offered them for sale. The plants were propagated commercially and received a variety name. The idea of a book about heather gardens came up. Already in 1927, the first heather specific book was published – named “The Low Road” by the author D. Fyffe Maxwell, with step-by-step instructions how to grow heather. In 1928, “The Hardy Heath” written by A.T. Johnson, was published as the second book on the market.
The first varieties propagated were described in botanical terms, for example “alba” (white) or “plena” for double-flowered species. Later, they received variety names identifying the locations, where the plants were found, for example “Kynance”. A little bit later it became common to honour the finder or a well-known person, like ‘H.E. Beale’ or ‘Sir John Charrington’.
The idea of creating heather gardens started in England, came then to the Netherlands and later to Germany. Already in 1972, The “Heidegartenbuch” was published in the former GDR by Eckart Mießner. The Dutch Harry van de Laar wrote in 1975 “Het Heidetuinboek”, which in 1976 was translated by Parey as “Heidegarten”.
The first gardening clubs for heather enthusiasts were established in England. Other countries followed, even in Canada and the USA.
In 1965, Kurt Kramer participated in a military exercise on the New Hebrides Islands offshore Scotland. Here he had close personal encounters for the first time. As a horticulturist, he was astonished about a few single white flowering plants within the sea of plants with just one colour. Perhaps that was the initiation point for his future career. Later, Kramer worked as a horticulturist at a large cemetery nursery and got in contact with autumn flowering heather. Besides working with the South-African annual pot heather (Erica gracilis) he also learned again more about Calluna. Those were in poor quality compared to the annual pot heather. This should change!
In 1970, after graduating from the Horticultural Master School, he established his own nursery at the small farm grounds owned by his parents in Edewecht. He specialised in production of heather plants. The sandy soil with high organic matter was best for this kind of crop. The horticulturist tested all available heather species and varieties available in the Netherlands and in England, especially winter hardiness and suitability to produce commercially.
In the 10 years until 1980, Kramer collected and compared approx. 330 varieties of Calluna. After finishing the trials, he produced around 20 varieties of those. From the pool of further 20 European heather species (Erica), he selected six species and one hybrid as sufficient winter hardy. In commercial production and in the garden, those needed only light winter protection, mainly fig branches. Around the year 1990, he produced 350.000 plants, mainly Calluna or Summer Heath named for their flowering time.
Up to this point, all varieties were randomly selected in nature or results of natural surprise hybridizations or randomly propagated seedlings and mutations of other varieties. As of 1974, Kurt Kramer was the first to create new varieties by breeding.
The first breeding success – the improvement of a variety in comparison to existing standards – came with the interspecific hybrid Erica x darleyensis. It was introduced under the variety name ‘Kramers Rote’ in 1984. Today, this cultivar is produced commercially from horticulturists all over Europe as well as in Canada and New Zealand.
Numerous Calluna varieties were brough to the market but had no significance in the trade. This changed with the breeding and introduction of the first Calluna bud-blooming heather, now called bud-bloomers.
The commercial success of his operation was aided additionally by the Variety Protection Law, which may be compared to patents in the technical world: Due to the legal protection of plant varieties, only the applicant or protector of this variety or his licensed contract partners may grow this improved variety.
The bud-blooming heather has one most significant advantage compared to the wild form of the witch-broom heather: The buds will not open. The wild heather flowers from June/ July to max. August. The bud-bloomers show colour – depending on the variety – from August until wintertime. Even light frost in autumn cannot harm the buds.
Such an important improvement needed a name to express the significant horticultural value to gardeners. Kurt Kramer selected the term Gardengirls® and branded this in 1997.
All varieties of the bud-bloomers received girl names. Due to their great common ornamental value, they became the family of “Girls for every garden”. The English name Gardengirls® can be easily understood by Germans and soon the brand turned popular all over Europe.
Kurt Kramer and his team made the bud-bloomers under the brand Gardengirls® extremely popular by communicating those advantages. The demand for this crop and the quantities produced increased significantly. The increased income from the licenses given to growers in Europe financed further extensive breeding resulting in even more exceptional varieties.
The naming process turned even more creative.: The variety with a special red hue received the name ‘Athene’. A variety with significant shelf life was named ‘Helena’ using the names of Greek goddesses. Due her Greek heritage the singer Vicky Leandros baptized both varieties.
Nowadays, Gardengirls® has also varieties with exceptional colour displays from August–October in its assortment. The colours of the buds of these late varieties are stable until way into winter. A new development is the group of varieties without buds or flowers. The ornamental value is made of coloured foliage in silver, green, yellow, red, or even a blackish green. Other varieties have trailing stems. There is no end to the creative ideas.