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Cross-leaved Heath

Erica tetralix

  • Name also: Pink Star Cross-leaved Heath
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial dwarf shrub.
  • Height: 10–20 cm (4–8 in.). Stem ascending–erect, woody, young branches hairy.
  • Flower: Corolla urceolate (pitcher-shaped), pink, 5–9 mm (0.2–0.35 in.) long, fused, shallowly 4-lobed. Sepals 4, glandular-haired. Stamens 8. A single carpel. Inflorescence a sparsely flowered umbel; flowers nodding, fragrant.
  • Leaves: In whorls of 4, stalkless, parallel to stem under inflorescence, otherwise spreading, overwintering. Blade needle-like, glandular-haired, greyish green, margin entire, revolute.
  • Fruit: Hairy capsule protected by corolla.
  • Habitat: Bogs, boggy pond margins.
  • Flowering time: August.
  • Endangerment: Critically endangered, protected in all of Finland.

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) is a perennial dwarf shrub that is familiar to everybody from heath forests, but not many know the other related species, cross-leaved heath which has given its name to the entire heather family (Ericaceae). Its family is comprised of over 500 species: most grow in Cape Colony in South Africa, there are some in the tropical African mountains and in the Mediterranean area, and a handful grow further north in Europe. Cross-leaved heath is a great rarity in Finland: the only stand that is known of grows in Kuhmo, around 700 km from the nearest stand. The species has apparently grown on this small, warm coastal bog since the warmer times that followed the last Ice Age. It has probably grown before in Häme, and there have also been a few uncertain sightings of short-lived stands on the Åland Islands and Finland’s eastern coast. The species is probably a legacy in Finland from a more favourable climate: cross-leaved heath likes dampness and a mild winter, i.e. a marine climate. Its main habitat is in western Europe where it is a common meadow species even though fertilization affects it in many places. The main threat to Finland’s only known stand is climate change. The area was protected already in the 1970s, but active protection work is still needed to protect the whole stand and ensure that the species has a chance to survive.

Heather differs from cross-leaved heath with regards to its clearly barrel-shaped corolla, its shorter, greener calyx, and the way that its capsule fruit opens in a different way. Cross-leaved heath’s leaves are linearly needle-line, while heather’s are rather scale-like. The leaves’ sticky glandular hairs made the architect of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, suspect that cross-leaved heath could be a carnivorous plant – but more likely the plant uses them to avoid becoming a meal itself.

Other species from the same family

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