Wild heath

From a wasteland plant to the star for colourful garden decoration

The witch broom heather – Calluna vulgaris – has accompanied humankind in Western Europe since millennia. Kurt Kramer (Edewecht/ Germany) has assisted the evolution in Mother Nature by breeding and introducing the Gardengirls® - to write a success story.

Heather plants grow on especially infertile soils in natural habitats. Approx. 3.000 B.C., these heaths increased due to slash and burn agricultural practices to gain grazing land for cattle. Those burned areas became more desolate to form wasteland populated increasingly by heather. Around 1800 was the time with the highest expanse of heath. Only sheep could graze here. By the way, the natural protected landscape areas known today amount only to approx. 3% of the sprawl known in the 19th century. 

Heather sods

Beekeeping and sod cropping were common. The dried sods were used as litter for the stables. The farmers incorporated the litter mixed with the animal excrements in the fields and thus could produce cereals and forage plants for their cattle. Heather at those harsh times had a negative meaning.

Landscape oil painting

At the end of the 19th century, artists discovered the heath. The beautiful, but often desolate scenery enchanted all landscape painters up to Eugen Bracht. The oil paintings of this time up to the early 20th century show sand, heath and bog surrounded by birch- and pine forests in multiple variations.

Prof. Thomé, 1885

Since the 19th century, heath was used also as recreational area giving plenty space for extensive walking. Looking with more enthusiasm people discovered miraculous deviations, for example plants with white flowers. They clipped twigs of the witch broom heather and took them home. Thus, the white heather branches developed as lucky charm and gift item. With white heather under the pillow, dreams should be-come true.

Beijerinck, 1940

Botanists and natural scientists explored the heath. P. Graebner wrote about it in 1895. Joh. Jansen continued this in 1927. W. Beijerinck created a monograph, published in 1940 in Amsterdam. The first time bud-bloomers were mentione.

 

 

Public heather garden; Schneverdingen/ Luneburg Heath
Public park, Bad Zwischenahn
Raised bed
Private heather garden

Horticulturists propagated those special plants, searched themselves and offered them for sale- These special propagated plants received an additional name, the variety name. The idea of a heather garden appeared.

Already 1927, D. Fyfe Maxwell wrote the first heather book titled “The Low Road”. A.T. Johnson published the second one on the market already 1928, named “The Hardy Heath”. The first varieties propagated received names linked to botanical nomenclature, for example “alba” (white) or “plena” (full, double-flowered). Later on, cultivars received names related to the locality originally found, like ‘Kynance’. After that, it was common to choose the name of the discoverer or a famous person, for example ‘H.E. Beale’ or ‘Sir John Charrington’ (pictures 6, 7, 8, and 9).

The idea of heather gardens swept over from England to the main continent, to the Netherlands and then over to Germany. Harry van de Laar in 1975 wrote “Het Heidetuinbooek”, later translated in Germany to “Heidegärten” in 1976. Eckart Miessner in 1972 published “Das Heidegartenbuch” in the former GDR. In England, the first heather society was established, later also in other countries like the USA.

First activities in Edewecht

Kurt Kramer served in the German Military. In 1965 during an exercise in Scotland, the first time heather plants interested the young horticulturist. He wondered about single, white flowering plants in the otherwise large monotony. Most likely, this was the first step towards his horticultural future. In autumn, Kramer had contact with heather plants as a cemetery green keeper near Münster. He learned about Calluna besides the main crop, the annual pot heather (Erica gracilis). The Calluna were in bad quality. This soon should change!

In 1970, Kramer started his own company after the successful visit of the Technical Horticultural School in Aurich, using the small agricultural farm of his parents in Edewecht. He specialized on the production of heather plants. The especially hummus sandy soil was best suitable. The horticulturist tested all heather species available in the Netherlands and Great Britain for suitability in commercial production and winter hardiness.

He collected up to 330 varieties of the witch broom heather (Calluna) until 1980. Only 20 cultivars of those were worthwhile to be propagated. Of additional 20 European heather species (Erica), only six species and one hybrid (with light winter protection with fir branches) reached production level being sufficient winter hardy. In 1990, he produced 350.000 pots, most of them Calluna, at this time called Summer Heather, referring to the flowering time.

Colour bowls
Decorative basket
Floral arrangement

In the time before Kramer, all varieties were surprise foundlings in nature, random crossings from gardens or seedling propagations as well as mutations (sudden genetical changes in already present varieties). As of 1974, Kurt Kramer tried to develop new cultivars by targeted crossings. The fist success, an improvement in comparison to the standard, happened with Erica x darleyensis. He introduced this interspecific hybrid, named ‘Kramers Rote’ in 1984. Today, growers in Europe and from Canada to New Zealand, produce this variety.

Countless Calluna varieties reached the market without making any significant impact.  This changed, when he started to breed Calluna hardy bud-bloomers. Today, this group is called Bud-Bloomers. The Variety Protection Act, comparable to a patent in technical matters, supported the business success. The law only permits the breeder/ owner of the Variety Protection and his contract partners to utilize the protected cultivar.

The bud-bloomers shows significant improvement in comparison to the wild form of witch broom heather. The buds will not open. The wild form flowers in June-July to max. August. The bud-bloomers show and keep colour from August-winter, depending on the variety. Light freezes in early autumn cannot harm the crop. Thus is a major success, bringing more uses for the garden enthusiast. A brand name was needed and Kurt Kramer choose the term “Gardengirls” for it. In 1997, Gardengirls became a registered brand. Kurt Kramer named all his varieties with girl names. All cultivars possessed highest garden suitability and were now the “Girls for every garden). Even Germans could understand the English term. Other European soon learned about this familiar brand.

The success story

Kurt Kramer and his team introduced the term “Bud-Bloomers” and his Gardengirls® to the market and explained these advantages. The demand increased and the production number as well. The increasing income from the license fee supported more intense breeding and introduction of great varieties.

A special red variety received the name ‘Athene’, a white variety with long shelf life the name ‘Helena’, referring to the Greek mythology. The famous Greek singer Vicky Leandros baptized those two varieties in 2005.

Nowadays, the Gardengirls® - assortment has varieties in colour from mid-August to October. The bud colours of the late varieties (Late Line) keeps well into winter. We also have varieties without buds or flowers. The foliage has a colour range from silver, green, yellow, red to blackish-green. Some unique varieties show their pendulous growth habit.