Quick Facts

Quick facts

  • Heather (Calluna vulgaris) is tolerant of a wide range of habitats that occur in Australia, the most fragile being the alpine regions of New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania.
  • Heather has a limited weedy distribution in Australia and has not been discovered naturalised outside of Tasmania.
  • A large persistent seedbank of easily spread seed helps Heather to rapidly invade new areas.
  • As it can potentially be eradicated before it becomes widely established, any new populations should be reported to your local council, or state or territory weed management agency.
  • Heather has become a serious weed in New Zealand where it is dominant in Tongariro National Park World Heritage Area.

What Does It Look Like?

What is it?

Heather is an evergreen perennial shrub that grows to about 50 cm high in Australia. In its native northern hemisphere habitat plants have been recorded up to 180 cm high. In exposed or wet conditions, Heather may take on a prostrate form but the most common form is an erect shrub. Its stems can be ascending, erect or decumbent, and are densely hairy when young. The leaves of Heather are small, 1.5-3.5 mm long and hairless (except for the presence of a few hairs on the leaf edge). They are green when young, turn brown as the plant matures and are arranged along the stems in four, sometimes tightly overlapping rows.

The flowers are small and consist of four petals and four sepals of similar size and colour. The flowers begin as a purple colour (flower colour ranges from white through to purple), but soon become papery and brown. Although borne singly, they are clustered towards the ends of long shoots and form long, narrow, raceme-like inflorescences. The fruits are densely covered in short white hairs and are enclosed within the incurved, persistent, papery sepals. The seeds are reddish-orange, oblong and about 0.5 mm long. The root system is mat-forming and fibrous (Gimingham 1960; CRC 2003).

For further information and assistance with identification of Heather contact the herbarium in your state or territory.

Flower colour

White, Purple, Pink

Growth form (weed type/habit)


Where it currently grows? Preferred habitat

Heather is suited to dry and nutrient poor conditions. It is also very frost hardy and can grow in wet conditions. In its native region, it exhibits a wide climatic tolerance and can be found growing at altitudes ranging from sea level through to nearly 2,700 m (Gimingham 1960). It generally grows in open habitats and prefers acidic soils. It is a component of many different vegetation types, especially grasslands, lowland and upland heath, moors and bogs, open woodland, sand dunes and partially stabilised scree (Gimingham 1960).

Under some circumstances, the regeneration and dominance of Heather is encouraged by fire, which promotes vigorous growth of seedlings and regrowth from old stems (Webb 1989; Legg et al. 1992). However, severe or frequent fires may lead to a substantial depletion of soil stored seed and, in some cases, may completely destroy the seed bank (Legg et al. 1992). Many western European heaths dominated by Heather were once forested areas. Clear-felling of the forest has paved the way for heathlands that have been maintained by burning at regular intervals, principally to maintain habitat for grouse and sheep (Gimingham 1960; Webb 1989).

In Tasmania, Heather has been recorded in various different habitats including alpine vegetation in the Central Highlands, weedy roadside vegetation in highly productive inland pastoral areas and on poor pasture and roadsides on sandy soils near the coast (Baker & Hanson 2006; Crane pers. comm. 2007).

Are there similar species?

Heather may be mistaken for other weedy species of Erica that occur in Australia. The following characters should serve to distinguish Heather from Erica species: the sepals of Heather are petal-like and pink as opposed to the sepals of Erica species which are usually green. The leaves of Heather overlap each other and are sessile, whilst the leaves of Erica species are stalked and not strongly overlapping.

Why Is It A Weed?

What are its impacts?

Heather is on the Alert List for Environmental Weeds, a list of 28 non-native plants that threaten biodiversity and cause other environmental damage. Although only in the early stages of establishment, these weeds have the potential to seriously degrade Australia's ecosystems (CRC 2003).

Heather has the potential to be a significant environmental weed in temperate Australia and could invade a variety of communities in lowland and upland areas, especially after disturbance such as fire or clear felling. Overseas, it has transformed tussock communities and invaded a variety of vegetation types, including native heaths, grasslands and open forest. Each of these vegetation types exists in Australia and some are particularly vulnerable. In addition, the plant can be expected to change fire regimes in natural ecosystems by altering the nature of fuel loads. It may also provide habitat for pest animals such as rabbits.

Heather is a significant weed in large areas of New Zealand where it is especially problematic in the North Island's Tongariro National Park World Heritage Area. It was intentionally introduced to the park in 1912 and it now has the distinction of being the Park's most widespread and invasive weed. It is the dominant cover in around 1000 ha and is present in another 25 000 ha (Keys & Syrett 1995).

The economic impact of Heather in Australia is mostly relevant to natural areas and roadsides, where its establishment would lead to greater cost burdens associated with control and removal. It may also have some impact on eco-tourism values (Baker & Hanson 2006). Whilst unlikely to invade cultivated land or well-managed pasture, incursions in unimproved pasture may lead to reduced profitability (CRC 2003).

Mature Heather is highly competitive by virtue of its wide environmental tolerance, high reproductive capacity and its ability to form dense canopies that exclude other species. It is also thought that Heather releases allelopathic compounds that inhibit growth of surrounding plants, particularly trees (Matthews 1993).

How does it spread?

Reproduction of Heather occurs primarily via seeds. Pollination occurs by various means including bees, insects and wind (Gimingham 1960). Seed production can be prolific, with mature plants being estimated at producing up to 158,000 seeds per year (Gimingham 1960). The viability of Heather seed is very long and, in some instances, thought to be over 100 years (Legg et al. 1992). Dispersion of Heather seed can occur by wind carrying the small, light seeds, sometimes up to several hundred metres from parent plants (Gimingham 1960). Seed may also by spread by running water and by adhering to people, vehicles, machinery and animals (Keys and Syrett 1995). Heather is also capable of reproducing by stem layering, i.e., the production of roots from low growing stems at the base of the plant. This occurs most commonly in moist habitats where there is an accumulation of moss and leaf litter (Gimingham 1960).

What is its history in Australia?

Heather is listed in an 1899 Tasmanian Nursery catalogue (Latham 1899). The first reference of it being a weed in Australia was made by Raphael (1955), who listed it as occasional garden escape in Tasmania, found on acid sands in Kingston and on Bruny Island. Records held by the Tasmanian Herbarium indicate that the species was naturalised in Tasmania's Central Highlands by 1966, where it was probably introduced during the 1920s by Scottish immigrants working on hydro-electric schemes in the area. From a total of more than 1,000 recorded cultivars, approximately 30 are available in Australia through the nursery trade (Spencer 1997).

How To Manage It?

Best practice management

Due to the plant's limited distribution as a weed in Australia, there has been little scope for research into successful control methods.

Its fibrous root system makes manual control by hand pulling or digging difficult. Also, the soil disturbance associated with such manual control usually results in regrowth from stem fragments and seed (CRC 2003). Intense grazing by sheep, especially in spring, will suppress the growth and subsequent flowering of Heather and may even result in the elimination the plant after a number of years (Gimingham 1960). Light grazing and mechanical slashing encourage Heather to put on new growth but will not kill the plants (CRC 2003). In New Zealand, herbicide is used to control Heather; however, there are no herbicides currently registered for use on Heather in Australia (CRC 2003).

Heather responds well to sporadic non-intense fires that rejuvenate older plants and stimulate the germination of soil stored seed (Gimingham 1960; Webb 1989, Legg et al. 1992).

The potential for biological control of Heather in New Zealand has been investigated since the late 1980s (Syrett 1995). Unfortunately the beetle predator released for this purpose in 1996 has had minimal impact (CRC 2003).

A range of integrated control methods, coupled with routine follow-up monitoring and control, will need to be carried out for several years to successfully manage infestations of Heather.

Control of Heather should not be undertaken without specialist advice and assistance from your local council, or state or territory weed management agency.

Please see the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority for chemical information http://www.apvma.gov.au 

Does it have a biological control agent?


When does it grow? (lifecycle/growth calendar)

Germination takes place in autumn and intermittently throughout spring and summer (Gimingham 1960). New shoots appear in spring and vegetative growth continues throughout the warmer months (Gimingham 1960). Flowering occurs during summer and continues through to early autumn (Gimingham 1960; Sykes 1988). Most of the seed is shed during late autumn but some remains inside the capsules and is released during the remainder of the year. Plants can produce seeds within two years under favourable conditions (Keys & Syrett 1995).

Where Is It Found?

Which states and territories is it found?


What areas within states and territories is it found?

Heather is widely grown as an ornamental in south-eastern Australia. However, it is only known to be naturalised in Tasmania. Specimens held by the Tasmanian Herbarium indicate that it has been recorded as naturalised near Lake Augusta in the Central Highlands, near Meander in the state's north, as well as south of Hobart in Kingston and on Bruny Island, the latter two reports confirmed by recent surveys that recorded several small naturalised infestations at both Kingston and on Bruny Island (Baker & Hanson 2006; Crane pers. comm. 2007). In contrast, it has not been rediscovered in Tasmania's Central Highlands, nor at Meander (Baker & Hanson 2006).

Heather is also naturalised in New Zealand, Finland, Canada and the western United States (USDA 2007)

Where does it originate?

Heather is a cool temperate, oceanic and sub-oceanic species that is native over much of Europe, with only outlying populations in south-eastern Europe (Gimingham 1960). It is also native in northern Africa, the Azores and the Madeira Islands (Weber 2003).

National And State Weed Listings

Is it a Weed of National Significance (WONS)?


Where is it a declared weed?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Is it on the National Alert List for Environmental Weeds?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Is it on the Agricultural Sleeper List?


Government weed strategies and lists – Weeds Australia

Names And Taxonomy

Main scientific name

Calluna vulgaris

Other scientific names (synonyms)?

Erica vulgaris L.

Does it have other known common name(s)?

Ling, Scots Heather, Scotch Heather, Red-heath, Biercol

Other Management Resources

Blackberry – a community-driven approach in Victoria

Blackberry the weed (Rubus fruticosus aggregate) was first introduced to Australia by European settlers in the mid-1800s as a fruit. It was recognised as a weed by mid-1880s. Blackberry is a serious issue across Australia. It is estimated that blackberry infests approximately 8.8 million hectares of land at an estimated cost of $103 million in annual control and production losses.

Read Case Study