great shrub: fothergilla, a multi-season star
SOME OF THE FIRST SHRUBS I PLANTED 25 years ago are looking a little past their prime (as is their keeper), so I was cheered recently to read an entry for Fothergilla major (above) in a woody-plant encyclopedia that said some specimens have been witnessed to look good even after 60 years. Coming up momentarily is fothergilla’s second big moment of the growing season—its autumn show—so it seemed like a good time to recommend this true multi-season beauty.
You cannot tell with certainty who’s related to who botanically by simply glancing, but it will be no surprise after a merely cursory examination of its leaves and branches that Fothergilla is related to witch-hazel (Hamamelis), and also winter-hazel (Corylopsis), in the Hamamelis Family, or Hamamelidaceae. Though I never hear anyone use it, the common name for Fothergilla is witch-alder.
As with its botanical cousins, I find Fothergilla, a Southeastern United States native genus, to be basically pest and disease free, and require very little care except occasional light pruning to remove a suckering shoot at the base, or a misplaced or damaged branch. The handsome leaves are good all season long. In the North, I grow Fothergilla in bright shade or full sun; the plants that get more light seem to have the best autumn color, and some cultivars are more inclined to good fall color than others, too, such as the popular selection called ‘Mt. Airy.’ In hotter zones, I don’t think they’d like full sun.
There are two species: Fothergilla major, which can reach 6 to 10 feet tall and almost as wide, and so-called dwarf Fothergilla gardenii, about 3-5 feet. F. gardenii is also called the coastal witch-alder, hinting that it likes a moister soil than its mountain-native relative, which is more adaptable to drier, poorer ground if needed. Monrovia Nursery, the big wholesaler, even lists it for “very wet” conditions in Zones 5-9.
Lately there are hybrid selections (called Fothergilla x intermedia) being made for traits such as smaller, more mounded scale, and for bluer leaves, such as ‘Blue Shadow,’ playing on the blue-green tinge to the foliage that both species can display.
If you can keep track of all the cultivars and which species they belong in, good for you. I lost track, but do recommend ‘Mt. Airy’ (an intermediate hybrid type, which at 6 feet is somewhere in size between the two species, and hardy in Zones 4-8 or 9). Ask your local nursery which ones perform best where you are. For a thorough rundown of both species, in nature and the garden, and the intermediate hybrids that display some of the best of both, try Rick Darke’s 2008 article in “The Plantsman” (it’s a pdf).
Whichever you grow, the flowers are creamy white in spring, and shaped like bottlebrushes (above) because they have no petals—just filaments. They have a sweet, vaguely honey-like scent, and a happy plant is a prolific bloomer, in April here.
But that’s not what got me thinking of them this time of year, when I noticed the first leaf edges of my biggest Fothergilla major start to color up. Besides being vivid, it’s also late—meaning when many other fall-foliage plants here have already gone to pieces, late October into November, Fothergilla is still here to keep me warm.