Plant Profile: Fragrant Witch Alder (Fothergilla spp.)

In early spring, the flower puffs on Fothergilla appear at the end of the branches. They look like soft, little bottlebrushes. The flowers have a honey-like fragrance and attract native bees and moths.
Following the flowers, the shrubs leaf out and the rest of the appeal of this plant soon becomes clear. The foliage is fuzzy and often has a blue-ish cast in spring. In the autumn, the foliage practically glows with seasonal colors.
The tag may say “full sun,” but partial shade will do. Also, in our region’s hot summers, some shelter from the afternoon sun is best.
During the first year, it will need consistent watering, while its roots establish themselves. After that, it should be fairly drought-tolerant.
Fothergilla prefers acidic, moist, but not wet, soils. If yellow leaves appear, that may possibly indicate alkaline conditions, which are not favored by Fothergilla species. Soil amendments appropriate for Azalea and Rhododendron, work for Fothergilla as well. Apply them in early spring.
There is no need for pruning! Let it grow and assume its natural form. Remove only broken, dead, or crossing branches. It is fairly slow-growing, but will sucker and colonize over time. If you have the space, let it.
This small shrub looks best in groupings of three or five and paired with other woodland native plants like Dogwood, Itea, and Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).
You will find that the Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’, Dwarf/Coastal Fothergilla (Fothegilla gardenia), and Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ do the best in our region and are fairly commonly available at your local, independent garden center.
See the Washington Gardener Magazine April2017 cover story for much more about this fascinating plant.
Try planting a Fothergilla in your garden today – you can grow that!
The video was produced by Washington Gardener Magazine and edited by intern Emily Coakley.
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