heath, in botany


Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum, a member of the heath family

heath, in botany, common name for some members of the Ericaceae, a family of chiefly evergreen shrubs with berry or capsule fruits. Plants of the heath family form the characteristic vegetation of many regions with acid soils, particularly the moors, swamps, and mountain slopes of temperate regions throughout the world and, to a lesser extent, of tropical and subarctic regions (see heath, in ecology). Many species have attractive blossoms and are consequently popular as wildflowers or, when possible, as cultivated ornamentals, e.g., the rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel (not a true laurel), trailing arbutus, and heather. The bearberry and madroño are sometimes grown for the shiny, leathery leaves typical of the family. Other species valued commercially for their edible fruits include the blueberry, cranberry, and huckleberry. Wintergreen is the source of a flavoring. Sometimes considered a part of the heath family are the pipsissewa and related perennial herbs and the Indian pipe and related saprophytic (nongreen) plants. The common heather—the heather of Scotland—is Calluna vulgaris, sometimes called ling. Native to Europe and Asia Minor, it is now common also in Greenland and in North America. Its multiple branches have been used for brooms. The names heath and heather are often used interchangeably. Although both are somewhat similar low evergreen shrubs of the Old World, heather has short, scalelike, overlapping leaves and a profusion of long-lasting rosy flowers; the true heaths (genus Erica) have needlelike leaves and white, rose, or yellow flowers. Species of this large genus are characteristic of vast moor areas in W Europe and, especially, South Africa and the Mediterranean area. The root of the tree heath (E. arborea), called also bruyère, brier, brierroot, French brier, and other names, is the major source of brier pipes (see Saint-Claude). Heather and a few species of heath are grown as ornamentals; cultivated forms of heather usually have red to purple flowers of a deeper shade than those of the wild types. Other plants of similar habit, particularly those of the same family, are sometimes also called heath or heather. Heath is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Ericales, family Ericaceae.

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