Common (Ling) Heather
Heather honey is made from nectar collected from the tiny purple bell-shaped flower of the common heather plant so named because of its domination of many areas of heath and moorland, and also known as ling heather. Other heathers, such as the bell heather, flower earlier and are less common which makes them less viable for honey.
Common heather is used to make honey mainly in Scotland, Wales and Northern England, although it is also found in a few other places such as
on Dartmoor in Devon and in a few parts of Northern Europe. Heather hugs the ground, growing usually no more than two feet high in its windswept habitat. Heather’s thin, brush-like branches were in days gone by used in bedding and to make brooms (its official name is Calluna Vulgaris, and calluna is from the Greek word for broom).
According to the British Moorland Association, 75% of the world’s heather moorland is in Britain with Scotland having the most. But what is moorland? Well, it’s the land to be found above the lower, enclosed farmland (cultivated fields) and it stretches right up to the tree line – the highest point where trees will grow. Heather moorland looks wild and unmanaged, but in reality, like the apparently natural “patchwork quilt” of the English countryside, it is a highly managed environment. Left to grow wild, the heather would become tall and woody, and no use to man or beast. Properly managed, the heather stays young and more tender which means it can be grazed. Producing good grazing land is the reason that the moor is managed today as it has been for thousands of years. Farming on the moors is limited because of the harsh climate – no crops will grow, and only hardy animals can survive all year round – some hardy species of cattle, sheep, deer – and of course grouse, that famous bird of the highlands. Farmers manage the heather so that these animals can eat and survive, and in turn the farmer can eat and survive!
Burning the Heather
Heather moorland is kept young by burning huge swathes of it in rotation. Depending on how fast the heather grows in a given location, this takes place between every seven and 25 years. Burning in rotation means that there are areas of younger plants, for grazing, and areas of larger, older plants to provide better shelter for the grouse and other birds. Conditions have to be just right to carry out a controlled burning. The peat, in which heather grows, has to be very wet – yet the plants themselves have to be very dry. If the ground was too dry, the peat, which is the ground itself, would catch fire (peat was in former times used as a fuel for fires). If the peat caught fire it would be very very hard to control and the roots of the heather would be burned, destroying the whole plant! After a successful burn, the plants soon sprout fresh young shoots which the animals love. So, if you are visiting Scotland and happen to see what looks like a great fire sweeping across the countryside between October and April, do not be alarmed – wildfires are very unlikely at this time of year, and although you may not see anybody around, you are probably witnessing skillful moorland management in action.
The Story of Heather Honey
Common heather flowers in about the first three weeks of September, and where it lives there is often nothing else much for bees to feed on. The beehives cannot be left in the heather all year round or the bees would starve. This means that heather honey is produced by a sort of nomadic beekeeper, who spends the summer at home with his bees, happily producing honey from summer-flowering plants in the relative warmth of lowland Britain. But when the summer flowers approach the end of their season, the beehives go into a natural decline as the queen stops laying. The beekeeper has to stop this decline because this is the very time at which the heather begins to flower. He does this by introducing a new queen bee in July, which stimulates growth of the hive again. Then, at the start of September, the fun really begins.
British beekeepers from all over the north of England and lowland Scotland haul literally thousands of beehives up onto the moors, and it’s the same story in parts of Wales. After dark, cars, vans and trucks are painstakingly loaded with the beehives, bees still in residence, and carefully driven up into the hills. On arrival, the hives are unloaded and maneuvered into position amongst the heather, which is just beginning to flower. Next day, the bees venture out after their long journey to find an unexpected chill in the air and nothing but the tiny purple flowers of the moor to feed on. This cooler weather makes foraging for heather nectar a dangerous business, and bee mortality rates are high up here on the moors. Many bees get too cold to fly when they are out and about, and simply never make it back to the hive.
After three short weeks, that famous purple haze of the Scottish moors starts to fade as the heather flowers die. The poor beekeeper then has to load up all the hives and take the bees all the way home again.
This whole process is very laborious as you can imagine, and it’s one reason that this honey is so valuable.
What’s So Special About Heather Honey?
Heather honey is a very special beast. Dark in color, it has a powerful aroma that is reminiscent of the heather from which it comes. Uniquely, it has a very unusual texture: it is thixotropic, which means it is like jello until you stir it, when it turns liquid. When you stop stirring, it soon sets again. That’s not to say it crystallizes, because this honey is not inclined to crystallize in its pure form. It also contains tiny bubbles which makes it shimmer in the light. Its strong, rich, smoky taste has been compared to toffee, and gets stronger the longer the honey is stored. While some people crave heather honey wildly and will never be without it after their first taste, there are others who hate it! In Great Britain, it is highly-prized by connoisseurs and known as the “Rolls Royce” of honey. It’s available in the U.S. too, although not widely and you may have to buy it online.
If you’re going to the trouble and expense of getting hold of some heather honey, my advice is that you try the pure stuff, made using the traditional method, from 100% heather nectar. Then you can decide if you are a lover, or a hater, of this uniquely British honey.