I was smitten the first time I ever saw fothergilla. I bought it early one summer for its leathery, blue-green leaves. Fothergilla is deciduous, and that fall I was delighted when those leaves turned first to buttery yellow and then through shades of orange, scarlet, and purple.The next spring I experienced the delightful form and honey fragrance of its showy, bottlebrush type flowers.The flowers appear from April to May on branch tips just as new leaves are unfurling. Fothergilla truly is a shrub with multi seasonal interest.
Fothergilla is also called witch-alder, and it is in the same family with witch hazel. It is easy to see the resemblence, especially in the leaf stucture. There are two forms of fothergilla, both native to the Southeast from North Carolina to southern Alabama and into parts of Florida. Fothergilla major grows to about ten feet.The dwarf form is Fothergilla gardeneii, growing to about three feet. There are a number of cultivars available, developed to promote the native's various characteristics.
Given the right environment, fothergilla is an easy-care plant. It is deer resistant and relatively pest free. It grows well in full sun to partial shade. Both flowering and fall color is better with a bit more sun. Because it blooms in spring on old growth, you should prune right after it finishes blooming. If you prune later than that, you will be cutting off the next season's buds. Generally, it doesn't need much pruning, except to remove unwanted suckers around the base or to remove dead wood.Growing in hardiness zones 5-9, these shrubs make great additions to the woodland garden and to the shrub border. They make fine specimen plants. They do well in the same environment as rhododendrons and azaleas, and they like moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Their roots should be kept cool, and I add pine straw mulch around the base of mine each spring. Newly planted specimens should be watered weekly, more often in very hot weather.
Fothergilla doesn't get the press it deserves and is under appreciated. When I mention it, many people have never heard of it. It is not always easy to find, but species plants as well as beautiful cultivars are available. It is worth the search.