FOTHERGILLA spp. (Small) K. Schumann
Large and small Witch-alder
By Thelma Glover
Imagine a beautiful native shrub that can tolerate, even thrive, in the hot, dry, drought conditions that we have been experiencing in Georgia for the last three years. Imagine too that this shrub is one of the very first plants to bloom in early spring with pure white bottlebrush, honey scented, fragrant flowers which bloom for well over a month. In addition, imagine that this shrub has superb blue-green, dense foliage that appears early and hangs on late. Now, imagine that in the fall of the year, this shrub has the most incredible kaleidoscope of colorful foliage ranging from buttery yellow, to pumpkin orange, to scarlet red with some individual leaves having a mosaic of all of these colors, plus shades of pink and violet. Imagine that this shrub will grow in sun or shade and comes in a large size and a small size so it can fit nicely in any size garden. This describes our southeastern native witch-alders, Fothergilla major and Fothergilla gardenii, which are not so common in the wild, but easy to find at garden centers, since it is no secret they are close to perfect as garden plants.
These unusual shrubs are very much alike except for the differences in size and habitat. Fothergilla gardenii, a coastal plain species, is usually found in wet places such as shrub bogs, pocosins, savannas and bays from North Carolina to the Florida Panhandle and s.e.Alabama. Ga Botsoccers who did the Fort Stewart field trip at the 1996 annual pilgrimage saw this rare shrub on a shrub dominated seepage wetland at Beards Creek Sandridge. It has been found in about 10 locations in Georgia since it was first collected near Augusta in 1900 by Charles Sargent. It’s presently on the Georgia rare and endangered list and considered rare throughout its range. Fothergilla major grows in dry woods and balds in the mountains and piedmont of North Carolina and South Carolina and in the mountains only in Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama.
The genus, Fothergilla, consists of only these two species which are restricted to the Southeast. The name commemorates Dr. John Fothergill, an English physician and botanist who had an extensive collection of American plants in his Essex garden during the mid 18th century. Gardenii commemerates Dr. Alexander Garden, Scottish pysician and Botanist, for whom the Gardenia is also named, who lived in South Carolina and first discovered the shrub there. Fothergilla is related by family to the witch-hazels but more closely related to Parrotiopsis, a monotypic genus of Kashmir and Afghanistan in the witch-hazel family also.
Description: Fothergilla gardenii is a deciduous small shrub growing from 1-3 feet tall, often creeping by underground stems forming clumps to about 3’ wide. The stems are zig-zag, and upright. Leaves are simple, alternate, obovate to oblong, 1 to 2 ½” long, ¾ to 1 ¾” wide, deep green to blue green with wavy margins with a few rounded teeth toward the apex. Flowers are white in dense clusters resembling a bottlebrush. They have no petals, the white stamens are the showy part. Fothergilla blooms in the Atlanta area in very early April before the foliage emerges. Seeds are contained in a small brown capsule which ripens in early fall, forcibly ejecting the shiny black seeds in much the same way as witch-hazels.
Fothergilla major is a larger version of Fothergilla gardenii, growing from 4-10’ tall and wide, with leaves from 2-4” long and ¾ as wide. The flowers and flowering time are the same as Fothergilla gardenii and from a gardening viewpoint, size it the big difference, since they both have the same cultural requirements.
Culture: Both species of Fothergilla can be planted in full sun or light shade. Flowering is much the same in both situations. The ideal location is in morning sun and a little afternoon protection. In this location, with their roots mulched, they can go a month without water after they have become established.. They are very much like native azaleas in their requirements, in that if planted in full sun, the more the roots need to be mulched. Give them rich, acid, loose soil. They need little, if any, pruning, but since they bloom on wood of the previous season, any pruning is best done soon after blooming ceases. They are hardy from zone 4 to 8.
Propagation: Seeds of Fothergilla have a double dormancy, needing a warm and a cold pretreatment before they will germinate. Softwood stem cuttings made from May 20 to June 20, placed under mist in a greenhouse, root 100% within 2 months. These cuttings made early have time to establish good root systems giving them an edge for overwintering. Stem cuttings rooted outdoors should not be disturbed until the following spring.
Garden use: Fothergilla’s white unusual flowers and also it’s colorful fall foliage is enhanced when planted in front of evergreens with lustrous foliage such as Ligustrum and cherry laurels. Plant it in groupings in beds or borders or use it as a specimen in a woodland setting. It combines nicely with Agarista in sun and shade transitional areas. A stunting fall combination is Fothergilla, sweet shrub and bottlebrush buckeye. It works well with azaleas and is a good substitue for evergreen Rhododendrons in South Georgia where Rhododendrons wilt in the heat.
Sources: ‘Mt Airy’ is an outstanding selection of Fothergilla which can usually be bought at most garden centers and any mail order native plant nursery. All of the selections of Fothergilla gardenii are carried by Wilkerson Mill Gardens, 9595 Wilkerson Mill Rd., Palmetto, GA 30268 770-463-2400 Fax: 770-463-9717
Dirr, M.A., 1990. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Stipes Publishing Co., Champaign, ILL.
Jones, Jr.., S.B. & N.C. Coile, undated, (1988). The Distribution of the Vascular Flora of Ga. UGA Press.
Patrick, et al. 1995. Protected Plants of GA. GA DNR
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Glover, Thelma. "Fothergilla spp." Native Shrubs. 14 Aug. 2004. http://www.gpc.edu/~decbt/Send comments or suggestions to: Kathryn Gable at email@example.com