Heathland plants



Heather is the dominant species of open heathland. Did you know that the open heathery areas consist of three species of heather? All three are widespread and common through the UK. They are heather (also known as ling), bell heather and cross-leaved heath.

Ling and bell heather are found on drier ground, while cross-leaved heath dominates the damper areas. None of these species can tolerate the very wet areas. All three can usually be found growing close to each other and are very common throughout the New Forest.

The heathers thrive on the sandy, nutrient-poor soils as long as trees and scrub are kept at bay. This can be done by grazing, tree clearance or burning. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but the most commonly used and the easiest to manage is grazing, with some clearance if trees start to take over.  If the trees are allowed to grow, the heathers will disappear under their shade.

ID tip – Leaf shape, flower colour and plant hairiness will enable you to differentiate the three species.

Ling Bell heather Cross-leaved heather
Leaf shape tiny scale-like leaves small, pine needle-like leaves small, pine needle-like leaves
Hairiness of stem A bit hairy Not hairy hairy
Flowers Spike of small pale purple flowers Spike of deep purple flowers

Pink flowers clumped at top of stem


Ling was used for thatching, basket-making, brushes and besoms, rope-making, bedding (with the roots downwards and the tops to lie on) and for fuel and wattle. The flowers make a satisfying tea and have also been used to make heather ale.

  1. Heathland plants
  2. Bird’s-foot-trefoil
  3. Bracken
  4. Gorse
  5. Heather (you are here)
  6. Lousewort
  7. Orchid
  8. Petty whin
  9. Tormentil
  10. Wild gladiolus
  11. Sundew


image-fade-right image-fade-left