There are two distinct types of single flower heather honey. One is from a single species, Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris), a true heather, and the other type is from any of the Erica species. Both the C. vulgaris and all the Erica species belong to the Ericaceae family, but of the two types, Ling Heather honey is considered true “Heather Honey,” and it is quite different from Erica honey of the Erica species. It is often called Scotch, Summer or Autumn Heather to distinguish it from other Erica species. It is a low growing evergreen native of Europe with a liking for dry acidic soils. Ling Heather is considered a symbol of Scotland and is one of the national flowers of Norway.
Ling Heather honey has unique sensory qualities and exhibits a gelatinous property called thixotopism. Normally it is gel-like and firm, but it will become temporarily liquid if stirred or agitated.
In judging honey, a common test of the purity of Ling honey is to place the opened honey jar on its side to test how quickly it will flow out. Pure Ling Heather honey will stay firmly in place for several minutes. The longer it stays, the purer the honey. Another sign of purity is the presence of small air bubbles trapped in the gel-like honey (a result of pressing to extract the honey), and while it has a bright appearance, it will not be clear.
Honey Heather Sensory Characteristics
Ling Heather honey is reddish/orange to dark amber. It has a slightly bitter, tangy, pungent, smoky, mildly sweet taste that persists for a long time. It has a strong distinctive woody, warm, floral, fresh fruit aroma reminiscent of heather flowers. The crystallization rate is quite slow and in early stages results in a smooth light-colored mass, and if very pure, it may not crystallize at all. Some beekeepers feel that the purest Heather Honey comes from higher moors (British Bee Journal April 4, 1912).
Another unusual characteristic of heather honey is its normally high moisture content, usually associated with fermentation. It is sometimes as high as 25% but it is usually between 19% and 23%. This is attributed to the gel-like consistency making it harder for the bees to evaporate the moisture out of the honey. Regulations for most honeys are often set at a high of 20% to prevent fermentation. However, an exception is usually made for heather honey, as this is its natural state and it is more resistant to fermentation than other honeys; it is thought because the gel-like property traps water and retards fermentation.
Heather Honey in Great Britian
Calluna heather starts to blossom in late July to mid August. There are other nectar-producing plants during these months, but fewer into August. Depending on the location of the heathland, pure heather honey could be rare and may be a mix of other nectars from the moors such as such as rose bay willow herb, blackberry, or gorse.
The gel-like consistency of the honey makes extraction from the comb more difficult without extreme heating (which degrades the honey). Best extraction at under 95 degrees F. is usually accomplished by pressing the honey out of the combs. Or, using the more efficient spin extraction process by stirring the honey in each cell with a small plastic needle (works on an entire comb with hundreds of needles on a plate) to temporarily liquify it prior to spin extraction.
Ling heather dominates the moors in Scotland and is also found in the uplands of Britain and Ireland. These areas account for about 75% of open heather moorland, most of which is in Scotland with the rest found in Western Europe. Heather grows on moorlands or dry heathlands which are characterized as open areas of land with few trees at altitudes up to 300 meters. Moorlands or dry heathlands exist on well-drained shallow peat less than .5 meters deep and support Heather, Bell Heather and Gorse along with a variety of grasses.
The heathlands are actually man-made landscapes made by Bronze and Iron Age communities. They were cleared of forest for agricultural uses such as grazing, bedding for animals and for fuel. The name “Calluna vulgaris” originates from the fact that brooms were popularly made from heather. Calluna is old Greek for “to sweep”, vulgaris means “common.” The heathlands have been kept clear of scrub and forest by burning and grazing for thousands of years. This practice continues and it is the resulting new growth of heather that is the secret to its vitality. Young heather also produces more nectar and therefore more honey.
Highly prized, the late, great beekeeper of the 20th century, Brother Adam described heather honey as “…red brown, like the water of the peat bog. A gift of Nature carrying the tang of moorland air.”
In Britain, August 12 is a traditional date that beekeepers move their hives into the moors to coincide with the blossoming of the Ling. This is known as the Glorious Twelfth and is better known as the start of Grouse hunting season, another very popular activity of the heathlands. The actual nectar producing period is short, between 4 and 6 days during the flowering season. Nectar flow may be strong or non-existent from year to year.
Historically, beekeeping came relatively late in Scotland. Wild bees didn’t find the conditions favorable. And if bees had their choice they would not choose the highland heather for nectar. It blossoms late in the season, the flowers are small and the highlands are cool and windy. They are there only because the beekeepers have brought them to a place that leaves them little choice for nectar but heather, so they work very hard to build up their honey. The beekeepers too, must work harder because the honey must be pressed out of the combs rather than spin extracted, but the results are well worth it.
Heather Honey in Germany
Heather honey was famously harvested in Germany in the Lüneburg Heath from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. It declined when the heathlands were reclaimed for crops and forest although there are still some apiaries in the Lüneburg Heath and beekeepers bring their modern beehives there to harvest Ling honey in season.
The specialized beekeeping for heather, was called Heath Beekeeping, or in German, Heideimkerei and the associated apiaries were called, Bienenzaun, almost every farmer in the region had one.
Heather Honey in Meads, Ales and Whiskey
Honey has been used in the making of alcoholic beverages since man first discovered honey. Mead was the preferred drink of the ancient gods and certainly was enjoyed by the ancient Romans and Celts that occupied much of what is now known as UK and Europe. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s famous ballad, A Galloway Legend, speaks of the Heather Ale made by the early Picts, the recipe lost with their fanciful extermination. Today, it is used in the famous Scottish liquor, Drambuie®, made from aged malt whiskey, heather honey and a secret blend of herbs and spices. Also in Irish Mist®, made from aged Irish whiskey, heather honey and aromatic herbs.
Recipes with Heather Honey:
Heather honey is delicious on ice cream or in Greek Yogurt, and because of its strong flavor is often used to create unique and distinctive dishes.
Cream Crowdie (Cranachan) A poplar Scottish dessert.
Honey Cakes Light, delicate cakes topped with honey & almonds.
Atholl Brose – Traditional Scottish Recipe Heather Honey, Scottish Whiskey and Oatmeal make for an unusual drink. Try it instead of Egg Nog around Christmas time!
Heather Honey Chicken – Traditional Scottish Recipe
Specific chemical markers: Phenylacetic acid, dehydrovomifoliol, and 4-(3-oxo-1-butynyl)-3,5,5-trimethylcyclohex-2-en-1-one. The aroma compound, phenylcetic acid is responsible for “honey” aroma. 1
Latin Name: Heather Honey (Calluna vulgaris)
AKA: Calluna honey, Scottish heather honey, Ling honey, Fall heather honey
Locations: Scotland, British Highlands, Wales, Ireland, Germany, Spain, France, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Italy (Piedmont), Poland
Translations: French: Miel de bruyère or Miel de bruyère d’automne; Spainish: Miel de Brezo; German: Heidehonig; Italian: Miele di calluna; Polish: Miodu Wrzosowego; Danish: Lynghonning; Latvian: Viršu Medus; Greek: Μέλι Ρείκι; Polish: Miód wrzosowy; Dutch: Heidehoning
Image Credit: Heather Beehives, with permission. Lester Quayle – East Riding Honey
Resources and further reading.
The Moorland Association
What is Heathland?
BBC Nature – Heathland
Lüneburg Heath Nature Park
Beekeeping in the Südheide Nature Park
8 Part Video of Heather Skep Beekeeping in Central Europe
Detailed images of Calluna Vulgaris
Removing heather honey from the comb with spin extraction
Recipe for Heather Honey Mead
Other Scottish Recipes with Heather Honey
James Bonner, Printed by J. Moir: A New Plan For speedily increasing the number of Bee-Hives in Scotland, 1795 Electronic Version
1/ C. Guyot et al. – Floral origin markers of heather honeys: Calluna vulgaris and Erica arborea – Food Chemistry 64 (1999) 3±11