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The Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay
Botanical History


HEATHER (Calluna vulgaris) belongs to the natural order Ericacea, and up to the early part of the nineteenth century was known by the appellation given to it by Linnaeus, Erica vulgaris. An eminent English botanist, named Richard A. Salisbury, in a paper read before the Linmean Society of London, in i8oi, called attention to some peculiar characteristics distinguishing the Heather from all other Ericas, and succeeded in having the name changed to Calluna vulgaris.

Salisbury's remarks are found in the Transactions of the Linnan Society for the year 1802; so that the Heather has been in possession of its present designation for just a century. I give his statement in part in the original Latin, and the translation as under:

"Mirum fortasse nonnullis videatur, Ericam vidgarem desiderari in sequentibus paginis: sciant autem velim, hancce stirpem, si quae alia in toto Ordine, proprium constituere genus: jure antiquiore profecto snum nomen retinuisset, sed cum tot aliae stirpes, apud omnes Botanicos jam eodem cognomine gaudeant, satius duxi hanc unam novo insignire titulo: itaque Callunani appellavi, oh usum ejus frequentissimum in scopis conficiendis: essentia generis, qua differt ab Ericâ, est in pericarpii valvis ad latera loculorum dehiscentibus, septis axi relictis: habitus, absque ullo rudimento petioli pedunculive, omnino sessilis. Alterum genus, cum illo pariter confusum, ob stigma grande Sakizis mihi audit, cujus calyx irregularis, et pericarpium drupaceum, triloculare, trispermum: quatuor species innotuere, faciem Erice scopariw prae se ferentes."

The translation of the foregoing follows: "To some people it may seem strange that Erica vulgaris should be discussed in the following pages; they may come to know, however, that this plant constitutes a distinct genus, if any in the entire order does. Under the older rule it would have retained its name, but as so many other plants now enjoy the same cognomen, among all botanists, I have thought it better to distinguish this one by a new title; hence I have called it Calluna, because of its very frequent use in making brooms. The essential points of the genus, in which it differs from Erica, are that the valves of the pericarp dehisce at the sides of the compartments, the dissepiments remaining on the axis: habit, without any rudiment of a petiole or peduncle, altogether sessile. On account of its large stigma I understand Salix as another genus, equally confused with this, haying an irregular calyx and a drupaceous, 3-locular, 3-seeded pericarp; four species are to be noted, having the appearance of Erica scoparia."

In an article by the late Professor Meehan, in Meehan's Monthly for May, 1899, the following less technical explanation appears: "The distinction is very striking, and yet it is remarkable that of the many hundreds of species of Erica known in the Old World, the south of Africa, especially, only this one should present those special characteristics. This is connected with the calyx. Ericaceous flowers are monopetalous, but one would think that the flowers of Calluna were divided into four petals. But, in truth, what appears to be four pink petals are four sepals or divisions of the calyx, which have been unusually enlarged so as to enclose the monopetalous corolla, and have assumed the rosy pink tinge the corolla ought to have had. To replace the ordinary calyx, four normal leaves have become enlarged, and serve as calyx-like bracts to the real calyx. The common name Heather, however, clings to it yet. It was proposed, when Calluna was separated from Erica proper, that it should be known as Ling, while Heather should be retained for the other three species of the old genus, which is found to a limited extent in various English localities. But this has not been generally adopted."

Rand says of this change: "It is proper to add that the Calluna is the 'oldest' Erica, if we may so speak, and was the type of the genus of Linnus. When the many other Ericas were found, it was discovered that they differed slightly botanically from the Calluna, but all had been classed as Erica. Calluna was but one, it was easier and less productive of confusion to change one than so many, so the original Erica became Calluna."

The word "Ling" is, by some botanists and writers, characterized as a synonym of heath and Calluna vulgaris. It is of Scandinavian origin, and doubtless by the hardy Norsemen, during their temporary possession of part of Scotland, was applied to the Heather which they saw abounding there. Quoting Prior again, he says in connection with the word "Ling:" "Dr. Nor, and Sw. Lynng; a word which Holmloe considers to represent the Skr. gangala by replacing g with 1; the common heath. This word is often combined with Hede, a heath, as in Swedish Ljung hed, Danish Lynghede, ericetum, a heath land, and, conversely, hedelyng, a heath plant, leading to the belief that heath was the waste land and Ling the shrub growing on it. Calluna vulgaris, Linn."

Miller says: "Heath is called 'Ling' in some parts of England; in Shropshire, 'Grig' (this is from the Welsh Greg), in Scotland, 'Hather.' It is remarkable that Shakespeare enumerates heath and ling as different plants. The former of these plants is from the German Heide, and t'he latter from the Danish Lyng; in Swedish it is Liung; in Italian, Erica; in Spanish, Brezo; in Portugese, Urze, Erice, Torga or Estorga; in Russian, Werese." The French call it Bruyère commune.

Dr. Johnson gives Ling (N. S.) heath; yet Bacon seems to distinguish them, as in "Heath and Ling and Sedges."

In some parts of Scotland, Calluna vulgaris is called dog heather, and Erica cinerea, carlin heather—she heather.

"Heath," says "Norden Surveiors, Dialogue 1601," "is the general or common name, whereof there is owne kind called hather, the other Ling."

Shakespeare makes Gonzalo declaim, in The Tempest, Act I., Scene I: "Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground; long heath, brown furze, anything."

Ellacombe, in "Plant Lore of Shakespeare," remarks as follows: "Lyte says, 'There is in this country two kinds of heath, one of which beareth the flowers alongst the stemmes, and is called Long Heath;' but it is supposed by some that the correct reading is 'Ling, Heath,' etc. And in that case, heath would be a generic word."

Ling, according to a writer in "Notes and Queries," is considered a synonym of backyard, a word common in East Sussex; a hairdresser there once remarking to a friend that he had been "watering his plants in his ling."

In Hampshire, Ling is a local term for a small backyard or garden, the chief use to which it was devoted being the washing and drying of linen. The word, says another writer in the same periodical, might be derived from the French Lingerie.

The word Calluna is derived from the Greek (Kalluno), signifying to adorn, and having reference to both the beauty of the Heather and to its use as a scrubbing brush or broom.


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