Azaleas, azaleas everywhere and no relief in sight! Azaleas can be very showy, both massed in foundation plantings or used, as they often are, in combination with Rhododendrons. However, there are so many fantastic woody spring blooming plants available that interesting plant alternatives to our Azalea addiction are easy to find if we only take the time to look. Fothergillas are just such alternative plants that are very different from Azaleas and bring an unusual and sophisticated beauty to the garden.
Like Azaleas, Fothergillas make beautiful companion plants with Rhododendrons. Unlike Azaleas, their white, feathery flowers are less bold and demanding in the landscape because they do not blaze with intense color. Fothergillas are therefore easier to place where their intriguing flowers and form will catch the gardener's eye and surprise any unsuspecting Azalea afficionados lurking about the April landscape.
Fothergillas are deciduous, small to medium sized native shrubs related to Witch Hazels by virtue of belonging to the same botanical family. They are indigenous to the Southeast but are named after an Englishman, Dr. John Fothergill, who cultivated one of the earliest and most extensive collections of American plants in Europe. Fothergilla's white flowers are borne in fine-textured clusters, reminiscent of bottlebrushes perched on the branches. The flower clusters are very feathery in appearance and are actually clusters of tiny flowers with no petals surrounding the interior parts of the flowers. The peak display is usually in mid to late April and may last for one to two weeks. Fothergilla's foliage resembles that of its Witch Hazel relatives and has striking fall color ranging from gold to orange to scarlet, often on the same plant. Although Fothergilla can be grown in a range of conditions from shade to full sun-good fall color of foliage will only develop in full sun.
There are two species of Fothergilla which occur naturally in two different habitats and are also grown for the nursery trade. Fothergilla gardenii, the Dwarf Fothergilla is indigenous to the coastal plain areas of the Southeast and is a slow growing, rounded shrub generally reaching three to five feet in the landscape (although it can very rarely attain ten feet with age). Dwarf Fothergilla's flower clusters are one to two inches long and fragrant. The foliage is an especially handsome blue-green and a satisfying, leathery texture. There is a popular new cultivar of Dwarf Fothergilla, 'Blue Mist' selected for its exceptionally beautiful blue-green foliage that is well worth seeking out. Fothergilla major, the Large Fothergilla, is indigenous to mountainous areas and is taller and somewhat more upright than the Dwarf. Large Fothergilla will generally reach six to ten feet in height and spread to nearly that width with age. Large Fothergilla's flower clusters tend to be somewhat longer than Dwarf Fothergilla, usually two inches long, and are also fragrant.
All Fothergillas are essentially trouble free plants that have no pest or disease problems. They perform well in the same conditions that Azaleas and Rhododendrons require to do their best: moist, well-drained, somewhat acid soils and partial shade here in the Southeast. Because of this, Fothergilla is a good choice for a mixed planting with Rhododendron. Propagation of Fothergilla is difficult from seed as the seed has a double dormancy (or resting period) requirement. Vegetative propagation can be successful from softwood cuttings rooted under mist.
Fothergilla's intriguing brushes of flowers, attractive summer foliage and striking fall color can be fascinnating alternatives to standard landscape plantings. A small mass of Large Fothergilla in flower against rich green Rhododendron foliage or a specimen of Dwarf Fothergilla in a mixed border, perhaps as comrade to a special Pieris, are just two examples of the way Fothergilla can bring finesse to a garden. Reserve Fothergilla a place in the landscape to intrigue and delight from spring through autumn. After all, gardens can not live by Azaleas alone....