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How to Grow: Fothergilla
Learn how to grow fothergilla shrubs and about some good varieties to try.
Listen to Podcast:
full sun, part sun, part shade
Bloom Period and Seasonal Color
Spring with white flowers and attractive yellow fall foliage color
Mature Height x Spread
2 to 8 feet x 2 to 6 feet
fall color, attracts beneficials, native
Fothergilla is an attractive, spring flowering shrub that grows to a low to medium size, depending on the species. I think it is underused and should be grown more in our region. It is part shade tolerant, but flowers best in full sun. The white, bottle brush-like flowers have a sweet, honey-like scent. They appear in spring before the leaves emerge. After flowering the attractive blue-green foliage fills out the shrub for summer. In fall the large leaves turn a brilliant yellow-orange-red color combination. Fothergilla has few pest problems and grows in any well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Fothergilla will also sucker and fill in a hedge with new plants or can naturalize in an area with filtered sun.
When, Where and How to Plant
Fothergilla is hardy to zone 4 depending on the species. Gardeners in colder parts of New England should look for the hardiest varieties and protect them in winter. Grow fothergilla in full sun on moist soils. Purchase plants from local garden centers and plant from spring to early fall in well-drained, slightly acidic soil that has been amended with peat moss and compost. Space plants 2 to 4 feet apart.
Keep plants watered well and mulched with pine needles or bark mulch in spring to maintain the soil moisture levels and prevent weed growth. Fertilize in spring with an acidifying fertilizer that you would use for rhododendrons.
Regional Advice and Care
This carefree shrub only needs occasional pruning in spring after flowering to remove older branches that are not flowering or growing strongly. Prune also to shape the shrub removing any errant, dead, diseased, and broken branches whenever you see them. Protect more tender species of fothergilla from cold winters by driving four stakes around the shrub and wrapping burlap around them to block the winter winds.
Companion Planting and Design
Grow fothergilla as a specimen shrub along the house foundation or in front of a mixed shrub border. The low growing versions are perfect for growing under windows without eventually blocking the view. Grow fothergilla near azaleas and rhododendrons because of their similar soil needs and tolerance to part shade. Grow fothergilla also in front of evergreens or dark green foliaged shrubs such as flowering quince. The dark foliage shows off folthergilla’s bright fall leaf color well.
‘Mt. Airy’ has large flowers, blue-green foliage, and vivid fall foliage color on a 6-foot tall and wide shrub. ‘Jane Platt’ is a smaller fothergilla that grows to 3 feet tall and wide with not as strong a fall color show. ‘Blue Shadow’ is similar to ‘Mt. Airy’, but has powdery blue leaves that stand out all summer. ‘Blue Mist’ has similar colorful blue leaves on a dwarf plant, but is not as colorful in fall as ‘Blue Shadow’.
Excerpted from my book, New England Getting Started Garden Guide.
This southeastern U.S. native shrub was actually brought into cultivation by an English physician in the 18th century, and hence his name associated with it. Like other American flowers, the English grew it, bred it and then reintroduced it back to us. But I’m glad they did.
The fothergilla is a beautiful shrub with multi-season interest and few problems. Depending on the variety, it grows 4 to 10 feet tall and wide. It has attractive white, bottle brush-shaped flowers in spring that smell like honey. This witch hazel relative has handsome summer leaves that turn a magnificent orange, yellow and red color in fall. ‘Mt Airy’ is the most common variety. It grows 6 to 10 feet tall, is hardy to zone four and needs little care. Smaller varieties, such as ‘Blue Shadow’, grow only 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. It’s hardy to zone five and has powder blue colored leaves.
Some types of fothergilla remind me of our buttonbush or Cephalanthus shrub that I often see growing along the shores of Lake Champlain and along rivers. They have flowers that look like white, round balls with spikes sticking out. There’s a new variety of buttonbush called ‘Sugarshack’ that has these white flowers and bright red fruit in fall.
But I digress. Fothergilla grows best on moist, slightly acidic soil with good drainage in full to part sun. The large growing types make great hedge plants mixed with viburnums and shrub dogwoods. The dwarf types grow well as foundation plants around your house. They also are an excellent alternative to the now banned burning bushes for fall color.