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Fothergilla: flowers, fragrance & fall color

Reed Pugh

Reed Pugh

May 27, 2014

There are so many cool climate plants to choose from and so often people end up using the tried and true performers. Nurseries know this which is why they are packed every spring with rhododendrons, azaleas, Japanese maples, hydrangeas, yews, hollies and dogwoods and many more native and non-native plants. The cycle is self-perpetuating, as many contractors, who also design, prefer to choose plants they know will survive as well as plants that are readily available at their local nurseries.

A few young Fothergilla 'Mt Airy' plants in full bloom.  ©2014BDG

A few young Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’ plants in full bloom. ©2014BDG

The palette of plants can get very narrow, yet there are so many other plants that are just as reliable, and they can be even more dynamic and interesting in the landscape. As a designer who has a true passion for plants, I try to incorporate many of these ‘other’ plants into designs and often it takes different contractors who will find plants not as commonly used in the landscape. This is one of several I will cover this summer.

Fothergilla is one of these hardworking plants that does very well in our climate and soil, and while it is not a rare plant, it does seem to get overlooked. It tends to flower early (USA April – early May), before most other shrubs. As it flowers before it leafs out, the plant can put on a tremendous flower display, yet the flowers actually have no petals as the display comes from the male stamens. The fragrance is pleasant and sweet and can fill a garden on warm spring days as you are starting to work outside.

Close up of Fothergilla blooms with no flower petals. These are the male stamens on display

Close up of Fothergilla blooms with no flower petals. These are the male stamens on display ©2014BDG

After a few weeks of flowers, nice sturdy oval leaves emerge that hold a green to blue-green color throughout the season, depending upon the plant cultivar. Then late in the fall they put on one of the best shrub displays of color with yellow, orange and red leaves. To get the best color they need to be in a part to full sun location.

Fothergilla 'Blue Mist' Millican Nursery in NH

Fothergilla ‘Blue Mist’ ©Millican Nursery in New Hampshire

The plants prefer a moist location but do well in a range of soils and moisture levels with the hotter locations requiring ample water. Taking a clue from its native habitat it is best with some shade or in an understory with good light. Hardy in zones 4-8, it is reliable in the USA from northern New England down to the mountains in the South.

Fothergilla fall foliage color ©Monrovia

Fothergilla fall foliage color ©Monrovia

The native Fothergilla (southeastern US) is called Fothergilla major, and is a big and broad shrub growing to 10′ (3m) tall and equally wide. If you have the space or back up on woodlands, these can be amazing shrubs for three full seasons. Most people in the suburbs where I work don’t have 500 sq ft to spare for a grouping of these large spreading shrubs, so there are many cultivars that are compact and perfect for smaller gardens.

A smaller species, Fothergilla gardenii, has several cultivars more suited to smaller gardens, and breeding between Fothergilla gardenii and Fothergilla major has produced many dwarf cultivars under the x intermedia species.

When designing with shrubs I am always looking for plants that work hard with interest throughout several seasons or provide interest during particularly quiet seasons. This shrub provides varying interest for three full seasons and you can’t ask for much more in New England.

Following are some of these plants available around New England:

Fothergilla major – 10’x10′ large native (3mx3m)

Fothergilla gardenii – dwarf species 4-5′ (1.5m)

Fothergilla gardenii “Suzanne” – a real dwarf 3’x3′ (1mx1m)

Fothergilla gardenii “Blue Mist” – Bluer leaves to 4-5′ (1.5m)

Fothergilla x intermedia “Mt Airy” – 5-6′ dwarf readily available (1.5m-1.8m)

Fothergilla x intermedia “Red Licorice” – 5-6′ Bright Red fall color (1.5m-1.8m)

Fothergilla x intermedia “Blue Shadow” – 5-6′ deep blue/green leaves (1.5m-1.8m)

[Australia – Fothergilla can be grown in a cool climate with ample moisture. A limited range of species and cultivars are available through Yamina Collectors Nursery, Jindivick Country Gardener and Dicksonia Rare Plants.

New Zealand – Greenleaf Nurseries, Blue Mountain Nurseries]

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Stephen Ryan
10 years ago

I just wish that more cultivars of Fothergilla were available in Australia as it is certainly a fairly rare plant here.

1 year ago

Thanks for this article. I fell in love with Blue Shadow, especially for the fall colors, after reading a blog which featured this marvelous shrub. I’ve come to realize, tho, that other varieties also put on a colorful show in the fall.