great shrub: fothergilla, a multi-season star

fothergilla major fall foliage
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.

fothergilla leaves fall
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).

fothergilla major
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.

  1. Jennifer says:

    I love this plant! Mt. Airy is my pick for southern gardens, always reliable color. In my house we call this ” the Barbie shoe plant” because the flowers ( to me and my three daughters) smell exactly like fresh new Barbie shoes straight out of the packaging.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, AC, and yes, it is a sweet story, Jennifer. I was a big lover of Barbies in my day, but I don’t know if I ever saw shoes that looked like these flowers…but it makes me smile, anyhow.

  2. Terryk says:

    How I wish I had planted more shrubs when I first moved in. This one looks great, maybe something for next spring. I did go to Broken Arrow yesterday and picked up hamamelis ‘harvest moon’ and that is blooming now with more buds on it. They also had so many pretty ilex all decked out in berries. So hard not to fill the car and then not know what spot they will go in. Lots of planning needs to be done this winter so I can add some more shrubs next spring.

  3. Norm says:

    Hi Margaret – the link to the Rick Darke article doesn’t seem to work. I’ll try to google it. This was a great blog entry. I have two new fothergillas this year, and a new witch-hazel, and you gave me lots of great info, as usual. Love your website – and really enjoyed your book. Thanks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Norm, and so sorry! I fixed the link. Thank you for the kind words re: the book and site, and for the tipoff to my blunder. See you soon!

      Nice to see you, IGardenDaily. Good to learn how versatile this amazing shrubs is in all those spots you have wandered to. :) Hope to hear from you again soon.

  4. handyandy says:

    What a timely post. Just brought home Blue Shadow Fothergilla – the leaf color right now is just beautiful – and have been wandering around the garden with it. Your photos have helped me to visualize the plant at maturity which will narrow the choices for placement. Thank you so much!

  5. igardendaily says:

    I love Forthergilla too. The fall colors amaze me each year. I’ve planted Fothergilla Mt. Airy in every garden I’ve had ranging from Portland, OR to Philadelphia, PA and now Boise, ID. It has done fabulous in each of these very different climates.

  6. Sharon says:

    Hoping for good color from 3 new small Blue Shadows, but they lost lower leaves before they could turn. Possibly uneven watering, but they’re in a difficult location where other shrubs haven’t prospered, possibly because of seasonal wet feet – behind a wall with a slight slope down to it.

    What sort of moisture do the intermedias like?

    And, please, what is the contrasting blue in your photo?

    Blue with red-orange leaves is a dynamite fall color combo which isn’t always easy to arrange in my climate!

  7. Juniper gardener says:

    Margaret, I have always thought of starting a fothergillia appreciation society–their fall color is so wonderful! Thanks for the post!

  8. Susan says:

    I will certainly be looking for this in the spring. My daughter-in-law’s maiden name is fothergill and I think she would love one of these in their yard.

  9. thepansylady says:

    Hi there, great job last night on Long Island for your lecture. Hope you got home safe for that long ride into the night. I think I was the first to run over to your table last night before the lecture to buy your book, was so happy to meet you. As I told you last night, your blog really gets me through my day as I sit at my office job dreaming about green things and dirt. Somehow you seem to think in the same life, growth, love pattern thoughts that I have as I look at the world around me. Please ALWAYS keep blogging….

    cindy (aka the pansylady)

    1. Margaret says:

      Thank you, Cindy, for giving me the warm welcome last night and saying hello again today. So glad you could make it! Got home safe at 11:30 and am a little exhausted but had a great time, too. See you soon!

  10. Elaine says:

    I LOVE Fothergilla, I planted one 7 years ago and it is truly a show stopper. last year I bought 5 more, they are small and Can’t wait for them to grow. I always have to order them in catalogs, even though they are native. it seems like a lot of native plants aren’t carried at local nurseries around here in Baltimore. They are beautiful in spring, summer and fall, I believe it is my favorite shrub.

  11. Terryk says:

    I would love to know that blue one too.

    By the way if you are near Broken Arrow, they are having a 50% off on remaining plants this weekend. Wonder if the sale will be extended as tomorrow night they are saying 2-6″ of snow and more in higher elevations.

  12. Colta Ives says:

    Thanks so much for this timely note. Fothergilla’s autumn color is glorious.
    I’ve just put in “Mt Airy” purchased from Windy Hill Nursery in Great Barrington, MA.
    They always have a fine selection of the “witches.”
    Dressing as a snowflake for hallowe’en?

  13. joseph conrad says:

    I have two Fothergilla gardenii ‘Beaver Creek’. They are very reliable as far as flowering and green leaves. I don’t think much of the fall coloring. They both sucker quite a bit!

  14. Carol H. says:

    I have two Fothergilla major ‘Blue Shadow’ on the west side of my house — in the part shade. They are about 5 years old and have never bloomed. I admit that I have never fertilized them. Would it help if I did do so? Or do they need more light?

    thanks for any help.

  15. Love Fothergillas. We grow both species, gardenii and major. They go way back in history. Gardenii was collected before 1750’s by Philadelphia plant hunter John Bartram and offered for sale in Bartram Garden’s 1783 Broadside, America’s 1st plant catalog. The genus named to honor Dr. John Fothergill (1712-1781) avid English plant collector. Major was considered the same as gardenii until early 1800’s.

    Two issues, however. Rabbits consider them very tasty so protect them in winter. The 2nd won’t matter for you east coast gardeners who have naturally acidic soil. Fothergillas need acidic soil. Easy enough to amend for us with +7 pH – just add sulfur.

    Thanks Margaret.

  16. Jeff Adams says:

    Always looking to try unique, non-invasive plants/exotics along with my so-called “natives” here in the low desert southwest in various microclimates. This one simultaneously looks both appealing and a potential heartbreakers :) It appears the one I would have more room for is a water-hugger. Great plant though; thought maybe you featured it once before some time ago. Beautiful ! -Jeff

  17. Joan Thomas says:

    I was so excited to see today’s article about fothergilla! The first spring after I moved into my new house in an active adults community six years ago, I noticed my neighbors had a shrub with an unusual flower. I had to do some sleuthing because they didn’t know what it was and discovered it was fothergilla! I love it’s little bottlebrush flowers, but I was totally amazed at your pictures with so many blooms. The neighbors used a rock mulch and I know the builders put Typar under that. Do you think that hampers getting enough water to the shrub for more prolific flowers? I have a new neighbor now and we are both enthusiastic gardeners, if somewhat lacking in knowledge.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joan. I HATE “landscape fabrics” and here is why I say that (scroll down when you get there). They do indeed form a barrier to moisture, and don’t promote a healthy soil. (I also wouldn’t plant a Fothergilla in rock mulch, frankly…that same article I linked to just now explains why on that score as well).

  18. Julie @ Southern Wild Design says:

    Oh boy…I love, love fothergilla. It is one of those plants that I think everyone should have. It is truly a multi-season beauty! ~Julie

  19. Lacey says:

    I have a wet, partly shaded area of my yard and I’ve been debating between Fothergilla and Luecothoe Girards Rainbow. Now I’m leaning toward the fothergilla. I love bottlebrush flowers!

    Please tell me that the chartreuse shrub in the left corner of the top photo is not your Aralia Sun King. I’ve been wondering if mine is healthy because it’s been dying back for a few weeks now and I’m in zone 7b. If yours still looks that good way up there, then I fear mine is dying, not just dying back.

  20. Joyce Killin says:

    Fothergilla my favourite shrubs and here in southern Ontario I prefer F. Gardenii. It always pleases, looks good and rarely needs maintenance. Like yours mine are just now starting to colour.

  21. Laura Palmer says:

    I love this shrub too! I’ve started several of the suckers in other areas of my garden and given several away to friends. They are all growing beautifully.

  22. J. Ellen Dolce says:

    I see that the last time I left a comment was in 2009 about my much appreciated Ogon Spirea. Now I’m pleased to see you’re featuring another favorite of mine, Fothergilla. I have five of them and they all have glorious color this year except the Blue Shadow which is still young and may get too much western sun. We Have lots of deer here on Orange County, NY, but they only do minor nibbling of the Fothergilla and don’t touch any of my spireas at all, including the Ogon. I was happy to read the tip about pruning those, by the way, as at twelve years old they are quite sizable.
    Ps. I find the Bluestone perennials catalog out of Madison , Ohio often has a good selection of shrubs as well.

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