Ask a gardener to describe the ideal landscape plant and he or she is likely to list easy care, multi-season interest, and freedom from insect and disease problems. Well, that is also a good description of fothergilla, a deciduous shrub that makes an excellent addition to landscapes in many parts of the country.
Adapted to zones 4-8, fothergilla, also known as witch alder, is a native of the eastern U.S. There are two species, dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) and large fothergilla (Fothergilla major), as well as a number of hybrid cultivars (Fothergilla x intermedia) that have been developed. All have fragrant, white bottlebrush flowers in early spring that begin appearing before the shrub leafs out; dark green, leathery leaves with prominent veins on a rounded, multi-stemmed shrub in summer; and eye-catching fall color in shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple. Plants range in size from about two feet tall by four feet wide for the smallest cultivars to six to ten feet tall and wide for the large species. All do best in moist, acidic, well-drained soil.
To help gardeners select from among the many choices, Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania conducted an eight year evaluation of twelve species and cultivars and rated their performance when grown in their Zone 6 gardens. Plants were rated on the basis of spring flowering, summer appearance, and fall color. The ones that received the highest overall ratings were the dwarf fothergilla species (F. gardenii), the hybrid 'Mount Airy', and the hybrid 'Sea Spray'. The evaluators also noted that, while fothergilla in the wild is found mainly in shaded locations, it flowers much more abundantly when grown in full sun.
To read the entire fothergilla evauation report, go to Wild about Fothergilla.