“That Dartmoor folk, and a large number of other people as well, do believe in ‘lucky’ white heather is true. It is also true that both white ling (heather) and the various heaths are rare, except in some places. On tract of West Dartmoor last year white ling was quite plentiful. One could gather it in handfuls. Since then several hundreds of growing pullets have been run on the land, with the result that in this 1938 season most of the purple heather reappeared but none of the white.”
Calluna vulgaris otherwise known as common heather or Ling is one of Dartmoor’s landscape gems when it is in flower as it tinges the hillsides a delicate pinky mauve. Very occasionally one may come across a clump of white heather which some would consider to be an omen of good fortune.
Visit Exeter or any moorland town during the summer and the chances are that you will be accosted in the street by a so-called ‘gypsy’ selling ‘Lucky Dartmoor Heather’ these are not true Romanies and their ‘white heather’ is usually of the cultivated variety or are simply purple heathers that have been bleached white(ish) by the sun. To this day you can still see cars driving back up the M5 with sprigs of heather tied to the car which is a indication that the heather of Dartmoor is still thought to be lucky. I can remember that when the heather was in bloom father’s old Ford Anglia always had a sprig of heather tied to the radiator grill, yep that’s right – Ford Anglia – I’m knockin’ on heavens door now. As with any genetic twist of nature there is often some association with fortune or mis-fortune. This is probably due to its rarity as in the case of a four-leaved clover or a white violet and similarly white heather. But when and why did white heather become regarded as a popular token of good fortune? One idea is that way back in time a young girl was due to be married to a warrior who was the love of her life. However, sadly he was slain in a major battle and a messenger was dispatched to her with the terrible news. Along with the message he carried a sprig of purple heather as a token of sympathy. Inconsolable she wandered the wilds carrying the heather and as her tears fell upon the patches of purple heather they turned white. It then became legend that anyone finding the patches of white heather should be blessed with good fortune. It is from Scottish folklore that the original tradition of lucky white heather is most common and deep-seated. But in later time the tradition became widely popular thanks to Queen Victoria for it was she who wrote about her servant who on spotting a clump of white heather and immediately dashed off to pick some. It did not take long for this tradition to spread across the country and gave rise to its popularity. So strong was the belief in the power of white heather that it became custom to incorporate a few sprigs in the bouquets of brides to ensure everlasting and wedded bliss for the couple. There is also another seldom mentioned belief associated with white heather which is that it will provide protection against a violent attack or other forms of personal injury. Additionally, there is also the old supposition that white heather would stop an habitual drunkard from imbibing on their favourite tipple.
There are always contradictions to the rule and in the case of ‘lucky’ white heather here are a couple of people who would have disagreed with that particular concept. In 1932 one of the Dartmoor convicts responsible for the infamous ‘prison mutiny’ appeared in the dock wearing a sprig of white heather in the lapel of his coat. Unfortunately for him its powers were useless against the judiciary who were hell-bent on making an example of these mutineers as was reflected in his sentence. Another example of white heather not living up to its reputation can be found in 1892 when on board a yacht called ‘The White Heather’ the Torquay harbour master dropped down dead.
White heather is in effect an albino plant, albinism is characterised by a partial or complete loss of chlorophyll pigments and incomplete differentiation of chloroplast membranes. Albinism in plants interferes with the normal process of photosynthesis which basically means very few examples thrive, hence in the wild they are scarce. As noted above any rare phenomenon is a prime target for some mystic powers to be attached to it.
To give some idea of the value of wild Dartmoor heather it was reported that in the November of 1946 a sprig of such at Covent Garden market was fetching between 2 and three shillings a bunch. Today you can occasionally see ‘ladies’ selling sprigs of ‘white heather’ in some of the towns and cities and it’s always advisable to give them a wide berth as the heather is not genuine and probably has been sun-bleached.
In a Dartmoor context the following story was printed in The Western Morning News along with its cautionary ending
“In the Dartmoor district where I lived for several years the supreme superstition naturally centres in the white heather plant, which the natives, and sometimes visitors will walk many miles to procure. The folk who have lived in the neighbourhood all their lives are wonderfully keen-eyed in searching for it.
I was once being driven across the moor in a little one-horse wagonette when all of a sudden the coachman pulled up, jumped off the box-seat and hastened on to the moorland until he reached a spot about twenty five yards from the road. He then picked some white heather which he had spotted from his elevated perch, although he was such a great distance away.
I once had the good fortune to discover a little of this rare plant, and with rather a selfish ambition for eternal good luck, I dug up the root and planted it in my garden. I was delighted to find that instead of dying, as I had rather expected, the white heather flourished wonderfully in its new and less exposed position. My selfish behaviour was soon rewarded, however, for next autumn when the plant burst into flower what was my dismay to discover it covered in common purple blossoms. On consultation with a native gardening expert I was told that this was no phenomenon but quite the usual occurrence, a heather root rarely producing white blooms for two successive seasons.” April 28th, 1926.
To give an example of how rare white heather can be on Dartmoor one simply has to look at some comments made by the enigmatic ‘Mooroaman‘. He spent countless hours tramping all over the wilds of the moor in all seasons and weathers. But even he noted that; “My but second find of white heather in all my days on Dartmoor occurred on Sunday morning about 9 o’clock in one of the allotment-like patches of heather near Rattlebrook Head. Mr former find was near Plym Head.” Back in the 1930s the south-western slopes of Cosdon Beacon were a popular spot where white heather could be found along with the Dinger Tor plateau and the ground between Yes Tor and High Willhays.
So if you ever happen to be wandering the heaths and moors of Dartmoor and come across some white heather consider yourself ‘lucky’ because such encounters are a rarity. Whether or not you are tempted to take a small sprig in order to attract good fortune is up to you. However, if you did and then happened to win big on the National Lottery please remember the author of this webpage. Finally, as noted above it’s never worth uprooting white heather to adorn your rockery as it is very likely that the following season you will just have a clump of common purple heather. Even more importantly there are those folk who believe that a patch of white heather marks the final resting place of a fairy although on Dartmoor it’s more likely to be a piskie. To pick from such a place would be tantamount to desecration and would be surely inviting the revenge of the little folk.