Fothergilla — An Outstanding Choice for Fall Color
When it comes to fall color, Fothergilla (pronounced fah-ther-GILL-ah) is one of the showiest shrubs in the landscape. It provides a kaleidoscope of colors — shades of purple, maroon, burgundy, red, orange, yellow, and gold. Better yet, this shrub extends the show well into November, long after most other woody plants have dropped their leaves. Its colors do vary from year to year, depending on rainfall, temperatures, and amount of available sunlight.
While considered one of the great American native shrubs for fall color, ironically, Fothergilla is named in honor of an English botanist, Dr. John Fothergill (1712-1780), who cultivated one of the earliest and most extensive collections of American plants in Europe.
A member of the Hamamelidaceae genus, Fothergilla is a deciduous flowering shrub that is native throughout the southeastern part of the United States. It is a cousin of witch hazel, another interesting and very useful native shrub. Besides its spectacular fall color, Fothergilla provides multi-season interest. It makes a dramatic statement in the spring with its attractive, fragrant white bottlebrush-style flowers that emerge on leafless stems. In summer, it is an attractive, well-mannered shrub bearing dark green to bluish-green leaves. After it eventually sheds its fall foliage, the shrub continues to be of interest in winter with its zigzag branching and light-brown bark.
Only two species of fothergilla exist and both are native to the southeastern United States – large Fothergilla and dwarf Fothergilla:
Large Fothergilla (Fothergilla major) grows wild in the southern Appalachians in North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama and as far west as Missouri. Found growing primarily in part shade in woods, ravines, and along stream banks, it has a rounded mound-shaped habit 6’ to 10’ tall and 5’ to 9’ wide. The leaves are nearly round and 3” to 5” inches long with coarsely toothed margins. The showy white flowers, which have no petals, appear in April as 1” to 2” long bottlebrush-like spikes and last for 2 to 3 weeks. The “bristles” on the spikes are stamens. The plant reproduces by suckering, but not to any great extent.
Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) naturally occurs in the sandy soils of North and South Carolina in sunny savannahs. This medium-size, slow-growing, multi-stemmed deciduous shrub looks very similar to large Fothergilla, though it is much smaller. Topping out at around 3’ to 4’, it is a suitable choice for smaller gardens. Like major Fothergilla, this dwarf species has attractive white flowers in spring and showy fall foliage. It requires moist, well-drained acid soil and is not drought tolerant. This species is “strongly suckering in habit,” according to Dr. Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.
While the two species are nearly identical except for overall plant size, their cultural requirements differ slightly. Large Fothergilla prefers part shade and drier, heavier, more acidic soil than the dwarf variety, which prefers more sun and sandier acidic soil.
FOTHERGILLA HYBRIDS AND CULTIVARS
Interest in Fothergilla as a landscape plant has grown since the 1990s, resulting in the development of a fair number of hybrids and cultivars. Of the many selections available, the following three tend to be some of the most popular:
Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mount Airy’ is a naturally occurring cross between the two species (F. major and F. gardenii). It was discovered at the Mount Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio by University of Georgia plantsman, Dr. Michael Dirr. It grows about 5’ to 6’ tall and wide and shows consistently good fall colors. The 2” long and 1-3/4” wide flowers are larger than those of its parents. It has heavy textured, dark blue-green leaves with whitish undersides.
Until this selection was introduced, Fothergilla was not all that well known or grown commercially. A vigorous plant, ‘Mount Airy’ is now widely available in garden centers. It is thought to be superior to the species in nearly every aspect, including flower size and abundance, cold hardiness, general robustness, and fall color. Its brilliant fall colors alone warrant its use in the landscape as a specimen plant.
Fothergilla gardenii ‘Blue Mist’ was introduced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It has a delicate, mounded growth habit topping out at 2’ to 3’ tall and 3’ to 4’ wide. The blue-green foliage is very attractive in the summer and lends a cooling effect to the summer landscape. According to Dr. Dirr, it may not be quite as cold hardy as the species and, in his opinion, the fall color is not as spectacular as other forms of the species.
Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Blue Shadow’ is a sport of ‘Mount Airy’ described above and very similar to it except that the leaves of ‘Blue Shadow’ emerge green in spring and rapidly mature to an intense, powder blue color. The leaves retain this color all summer and then change to brilliant red, orange and yellow shades in fall. This shrub grows 4’ to 6’ tall and wide with a rounded habit. It is one of the more popular cultivars available commercially.
Fothergilla thrives in filtered shade to full sun in USDA zones 5-8, but the best fall color is produced in full sun.
It prefers moist, acidic, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter added. Acid soil is a must. Fothergilla species thrive in soil with a pH of 5.0 and below. Alkaline soils result in yellow (chlorotic) foliage.
This plant has shallow roots and benefits from a layer of mulch to moderate soil temperatures and conserve moisture.
The F. gardenii species tends to spread by suckering. To limit its spread, promptly remove the suckers as soon as they appear.
Prune Fothergilla only to maintain a healthy framework. This includes trimming off dead branches or branches that are rubbing against each other. However, if you wish to reduce its size, prune it after it finishes flowering in late April. Fothergilla blooms on last year’s wood. If you wait until it goes dormant in the winter, you will lose the spring flowers.
Fothergillas are trouble-free plants that have no known pest or disease problems. They are generally deer resistant.
Fothergilla is easy to propagate from either root or softwood cuttings. In fact, its suckering habit can be used to your advantage for this purpose. Simply dig up a sucker with as much of the root as possible and transplant it elsewhere. New plants can also be started from softwood cuttings. Early summer is generally the best time to collect cuttings so that they have time to establish a good root system before going dormant in winter. Starting new plants from seed is the most difficult approach as it may take as many as 9 to 15 months for the seeds to germinate.
USES IN THE LANDSCAPE
Fothergilla is equally attractive used as:
- An interesting single specimen or accent plant. This shrub merits specimen status in the autumn garden due to its outstanding fall foliage.
- A mass planting. Keep in mind that large Fothergilla is a good choice for a spacious landscape, whereas dwarf Fothergilla will generally work better in a smaller garden where space is at a premium.
- A part of a shrub or mixed border containing other plants that like similar growing conditions and acidic soil such rhododendrons and azaleas. Other good plant combinations include oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), inkberry (Ilex glabra), serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), red chokeberry (Aronia arbulifolia), sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), and sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).
- A foundation planting.
- An informal hedge.
- A planting in a naturalized setting bordering the margins of a wooded area.
Regardless of how you use it, easy-to-grow Fothergilla’s showy spring flowers and attractive summer foliage are excellent reasons enough to grow this native species. But its astonishing fall colors make this shrub a truly outstanding multi-season choice for the landscape.
Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Dirr, Dr. Michael A., 1997)
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, Sixth Edition (Dirr, Dr. Michael A., 2009)
Native Plants of the Southeast, A comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 species for the Garden (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014)
“Dwarf Fothergilla,” The Morton Arboretum website
“Fothergilla,” Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information Center Publication HGIC 1093
“Problem-Free Shrubs for Virginia Landscapes,” Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication 450-236
“Selecting Plants for Virginia Landscapes: Showy Flowering Shrubs,” VCE’ Publication HORT 84P
“The Witch Hazel Family (Hamamelidaceae)” by Richard E. Weaver, Jr., 1976, arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu
“Trees and Shrubs for Acid Soils,” VCE Publication 430-027