On Gardening

Fothergilla lights up the fall landscape

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceNovember 9, 2012 


The fothergilla offers fragrant white blossoms in the spring and a blaze of color in the fall.


To light up the fall landscape with a blaze of stunning color, try the dwarf fothergilla.

What’s a fothergilla? Before I answer that, what if I asked you to name a shrub with fiery oranges and reds, like fall maple leaves?

Savvy gardeners might have named a Henry’s Garnet Virginia willow, or maybe even a flame euonymus – also called burning bush.

Those would be great choices, but so would the southeastern native called dwarf fothergilla.

Botanically speaking, the plant is Fothergilla gardenii and is commonly called dwarf witchalder. It is in the witch hazel family and is native from Florida to North Carolina but is recommended as far north as Wisconsin (USDA hardiness zones: 5 through 8A).

Though I am touting its fall leaf color, in the spring this dwarf shrub loads up with scores of fragrant white bottlebrush-like blossoms before its leaves emerge. The plant reaches about 3 feet tall – a nice size. The leaves that emerge are dark green and leathery and grow along crooked stems.

When fall arrives, the dwarf fothergilla is every bit the attention-grabber it was in the spring.

Good conditions for this showy fall plant include cool night temperatures and warm, sunny days. Climate has the most effect on the production of anthocyanin pigments, which intensify the red and scarlet colors. Conditions that most favor these colors are sunny days and nighttime temperatures between 45 degrees and freezing.

Even though the chlorophyll content of the leaf declines in the fall, it is still important that photosynthesis take place. If an abundance of cloudy weather prevents photosynthesis, leaf color will be mediocre even if temperatures are ideal.

Cool night temperatures limit the movement of sugar from the leaves and reduce the rate of respiration in the leaf, so some sugars are converted to carbon dioxide. Those retained are converted to colorful pigments. That is where the dwarf fothergilla excels. It is one of the most reliable species when it comes to color.

It thrives in moist but well-drained fertile soil and with plenty of sun. Its riotous colors show best against a backdrop of green. Try growing dwarf fothergilla in front of hollies or some showy conifer like a juniper or pine. For a gaudy but truly thrilling combination, plant with the blue Arizona cypress variety called Carolina Sapphire. Springtime partners would be azaleas and forsythia.

Fall is a great time to plant and the dwarf fothergilla is certainly worthy of your consideration. Come spring you’ll be glad you did.

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