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Fothergilla: A Shrub For Year Round Interest

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.This fothergilla major is growing in my woodland garden. It has a loose, airy form. With more sun it probably would have a denser structure. Fall color is just beginning to show in a few leaves. 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.

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Reader Comments (22)

I'll have to search this plant out! I don't think I've ever seen one in person. Those white blooms are fabulous, and I bet they are a delight to see each spring. And its leaves of many colors must also give a lovely autumn show.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

Sigh. Another beautiful shrub that won't grow in my little corner of the country.

October 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

What a graceful looking shrub that exhibits different hues on its foliage through the year. The flowers aren't too bad either. Another one for the list!

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

I would love to grow this shrub, but our soil is far too alkaline. It is great that you have highlighted it here - it really is a beauty.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Gardening Shoe

That changing pattern of leaf colour is what I love about my Hibiscus tiliaceus.

Your Italian arum should sprout 'with the winter rain in March' so September or October for you.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

You've given us a great profile of a beautiful plant, one of my favorites. I have species gardenii, which turns kaleidescope orange colors in very late fall, and the cultivar 'Mt. Airy' which is turning a deep purply blue now -- not sure how to describe its fall color, but it is dark and rich and almost navy blue!

My gardenii fothergillas are getting more than 3 feet tall -- I think they want to be five feet, but I'm pruning to control them a little. Thanks for showing us this underused, gorgeous plant.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

I agree with you that it is an under appreciated, beautiful plant. The flowers are so unique, and the fact that it grows in a woodland garden is a plus. Our soils are too alkaline for most of the woodland plants though. Some rhodies grow well, but not all. You have done a nice review of it.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

Fragrance? Is there a fragrance? Surely I can find spaces for these.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

What a wonderful plant, I must find room for one in our little woodland. The beautiful leaves certainly earn it a place as well as the pretty flowers.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpauline

Oh I am in love with them...I had one years ago, it was stunning, but didn't make it through the second winter in a pot, despite our easy winters down there. The blue grey shades of the leaves sigh....

Must go and look to see if it will survive up here.


October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

Beautiful leaves, autumn colour and a nice fragrance? That sounds like the perfect shrub. I must keep this one in mind.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

I was optimistic that I could grow this lovely plant when you mentioned zone 5. Then I saw "keep the roots cool." Never going to happen in our summer months. (sigh)

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

I absolutely adore this plant. I tried it in my garden, but it did not like my climate. I love the flowers and how the leaves change color.

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

That fall color is incredible. I didn't know it was fragrant - I need one!

October 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason

A lovely plant, not for me sadly as I don't have acid soil nor could I provide cool roots! The leaf colour in autumn is fabulous.

October 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I'm with you. This is a great plant. It's one of the few shrubs in my garden that lived up to its fall color hype, and the flowers in spring are cool and different. But mine has only a very faint aroma, sad to say. I was hoping for more fragrance.

I just planted an F. gardenii in late summer...it has already shown me the beautiful changing colors of the leaves...and I am so looking forward to the spring blooms ;) You've done a lovely write up of this great native shrub!

October 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJan Doble

This is a shrub that has been on my wish list for a while. The honey fragrance, white flowers and the fall color means this shrub lands high on the long list of must-haves.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Hi Deb
I plan on digging out a few shrubs that are not performing well so I will certainly consider the Fothergilla, since it's Zones 5-9 and full sun pr partial shade. Thx!

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAstrid

Hi Deb! It's a nice plant, and yes, I've never heard of it. I do like its loose, airy shape which allows to see through and see other colors.

October 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

I grew fothergilla when I lived in SC and miss having it in the garden. It's such a simple beauty. Check out my Garden Love column!

October 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

I've also never heard of this plant, or seen autumn leaves turn purple. Stunning.

October 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g
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