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Plants from the Ground Up

Fothergilla – A native wonder!

Fothergilla, known as Witch-Alder, is a wonderfully fragrant and interesting native shrub from the Southeast United States. In April-May, before the leaves appear, the bare branches become covered in peculiar bottle-brush like flower spikes. The white honey-scented flowers are apetalous (meaning they have no petals), they are made up of very showy stamens. The female plants have only white stamens whereas the male plants also have yellow anthers to add to their spring display. These plants shine again in autumn when they put on a fine show of yellow, orange, red and burgundy leaves.

Fothergilla major Mt. Airy - Fall color

Fothergilla major Mt. Airy – Fall color

Fothergilla is named in honor of John Fothergill who was a Quaker physician that promoted many U.S. native plants back home to the U.K. While we take our wonderful natives for granted, they are much loved around the world—try planting one of these bewitching shrubs in your landscape. Your neighbors will ask you where such a wonder came from! Witch-Alder is another fine member of the Witch-Hazel family (Hamamelidaceae); a family known for it unusual blooms and brilliant fall color.

Fothergilla gardenii is known as the Coast Fothergilla (the species is named for Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician and plant enthusiast who moved to S. Carolina in 1752 and also promoted it in the U.K.). Native to the coastal bogs and savannahs of N. Carolina to Florida and Alabama, these small shrubs generally stay in the 3 x 3 foot range. Witch-Alder thrive in evenly-moist acidic soils where they gradually spread by suckers. Flowering is best in locations with full sun, but some afternoon shade is appreciated in the hottest climates. Sandy or loamy soils work well, but avoid planting these in very heavy soils. The alternately arranged leaves on F. gardenii are oblong to ovate, 2.5 inches long and interestingly the leaf margins are entire on the bottom half and become toothed on the top half. Fothergilla gardenii is a more prolific seeder than other species and can be grown either by seed or by softwood cuttings. Hardy to USDA zone 5.

Fothergilla gardenii - Flower

Fothergilla gardenii – Flower

Fothergilla gardenii - Fall color

Fothergilla gardenii – Fall color

The F. major species is known as the Mountain Fothergilla. Native to the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia, it is found in higher elevation locations (1500 feet and above). It thrives in rocky acidic soils and although it prefers lighter soils, it is more tolerant of both heavy soils and drought than F. gardenii. The leaves are similar in shape to F. gardenii, but are 2-4 inches long and while dark-green on the tops, the undersides are more blue. It is quite large, growing to more than 15 feet tall.

Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’

Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’ – Flower

Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’ - New Growth

Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’ – New growth

Fothergilla major ‘Mt. Airy’ is a wonderful hybrid discovered by plantsman Michael Dirr at the Mt. Airy arboretum in Ohio. Much smaller than F. major straight species (growing to 3-5 feet tall and nearly as wide), ‘Mt. Airy’ is much more suited to most landscapes. The flowers of ‘Mt. Airy’ are larger than the coastal species and the fall show is also a fantastic journey from yellow to crimson! They are grown from softwood cuttings taken from May to September. Hardy to USDA zone 5.

For more photos and information, see Fothergilla at the Forestfarm Store.

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