And he loves it.
The love part actually started in the early '90s. Paul, a paint salesman, and Jane, a career pharmaceutical employee, were living on a third of an acre in Newark, Del., and searching for something to plant on a hill in the yard when they read a news article about heather.
Who could resist this romantic image: Scottish moors covered in wild, fuzzy mounds of white, pink, or purple flowers and foliage - red or gold, chartreuse, gray, or bronze-tipped - that's an eyeful in its own right.
Here's what makes a heatherholic's heart truly sing: With a combination of winter-blooming heath and its close relative, summer-blooming heather, a moor - or backyard garden - can be a color-rich collage all year long.
The Murphys went to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square to see these marvelous plants, and immediately bought six for their hillside.
"Flowers in wintertime really appealed to me," says Paul, 65.
"We just loved the way they looked," adds Jane, 61.
Alas, all six plants died - which illustrates the biggest hurdle the Murphys face in selling local gardeners on heather: If you've ever tried to grow it, you've probably had a bad experience.
Jane, a master gardener, says: "When you buy a pot of heather, the directions always say to plant in full sun. That may work in Washington state and Oregon, but heather doesn't do well in the Mid-Atlantic's intense summer sun."
A word of explanation here.
Heath and heather are evergreens and belong to the same family. While botanically different, they're similar enough that they're routinely lumped together as "heather." That said . . .
What diehards call "true heather" belongs to the genus Calluna. It blooms in late July and August, has scalelike foliage, and likes a springtime prune.
The most common heath species (genus Erica) are winter bloomers. They have needle leaves, tolerate sun and wind a bit better than heather, and don't need pruning. They're budding up now for a display that could last from late December to April.
"And you don't have to have a lot of them to brighten your day," Paul says.
In this part of the country, heather likes morning sun followed by dappled shade, acid soil - "lean, crappy soil," in Jane's words - and good drainage. The Murphys figured all this out through trial and error, by visiting heather gardens (the closest is Fort Tryon Park in New York City), attending conferences, and experimenting with heather in their garden.
They learned well. At its peak, their hillside collection in Newark was almost 100 plants. At their Oxford home, which sits on two acres and comes with barn and greenhouse, the couple grow 40 to 50 varieties for sale. They also sell companion plants - twig dogwood, dwarf conifer, Japanese maple, witch hazel, blueberries.
Generally, heather hugs the ground with heights ranging from 2 to 24 inches and widths from 12 to 30 inches. Jane recommends spacing plants 18 inches apart and then practicing patience. These natives of the British Isles are slow-growers, one reason they're not big sellers in garden centers.
"They want to sell something that's going to grow fast, shoot around, and blow up right away," says Bill Dowley of Keene, N.H., former vice president of the Northeast Heather Society, whose membership spans Maryland to Montreal.
One other factor limits heather's appeal: It's typically not in bloom in May and June, when gardeners are loading up on plants for the new season.
On the other hand, heather isn't invasive. It attracts bees, not deer. It's drought-resistant, doesn't need fertilizer (except in containers), and it's great for Shore gardens.
"These plants like sandy soil and salt air," says Pat Hoffman, a self-described "heather fanatic" who grows 50 to 75 heathers at her Woolwich Township home, and has spotted heather in Avalon and Cape May.
Historically, heather has had uses beyond the horticultural. Mattresses were stuffed with it and it was woven into rope and baskets. Microbreweries still make heather ale, and heather honey is said to be a treat.
But heather's home is in the landscape - in a raised bed or mixed border, on an island or gentle slope. It's the right scale for rock gardens and it makes a dandy fresh or dried floral arrangement.
For public display, it can be clipped into a knot garden or geometric design, or made to drift like a river. At home, Jane says, "simple groupings work fine. You just don't want to plop one here and plop one there."
But how to help a local bride of Scottish ancestry who asked the Murphys to make her a traditional bouquet of white heather, considered lucky? "Unless you're getting married in late July or early August," its typical bloom time, "we can't force it," Paul says.
He and Jane are intrigued, though. They've already determined that heather doesn't freeze well. But for the last few weeks, two plastic bags of heather have stayed fresh in the vegetable crisper of the fridge.
"A work in progress," Paul calls it.
Another one, that is.
Heath and Heather How-Tos
Paul and Jane Murphy are happy to share their favorite heath and heather for the Philadelphia area:
HeathErica carnea 'Springwood Pink,' 'Springwood White,' 'Golden Starlet,' 'Pirbright Rose.'
HeatherCalluna vulgaris 'County Wicklow,' 'Goldsworth Crimson,' 'Beoley Gold,' 'Waquoit Wild,' 'Robert Chapman,' 'Mairs Variety.'
For information Northeast Heather Society (northeastheathersociety.org/) and North American Heather Society (northamericanheathersociety.org).
Fall is a great time to plant. You can count on being relatively safe from frost till Nov. 1. Beyond that, you take your chances.
The Murphys will be on hand to talk about (and sell) heather at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Fall Festival on Sept. 22, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, 4747 S. Broad St. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit:
Jane Murphy explains why heath and heather are great plants in the garden all year long. www.philly.com/ginny
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.