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What is Fothergilla?

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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2016
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Fothergilla, also called witch alder, is a small genus of the plant family Hamamelidaceae that has only two, or perhaps as many as three, distinct species, all of which are native to the southeastern part of the United States. The genus is named after a Quaker physician, John Fothergill, who also pursued botany. All of the species of this genus are flowering, woody shrubs that are deciduous, meaning that their leaves change color in the autumn before dropping off the plant. Fothergilla shrubs can be purchased at nurseries and are usually grown as decorative garden shrubs. They have dark leaves that are often green or blue-green in color, and spiky white to off-white flowers.

The two most common Fothergilla species are F. major, also called the large witch alder, and F. gardenii, or the dwarf witch alder. A possible third species, called F. monticola or the Alabama Fothergilla, is occasionally lumped in with species F. major. Large witch alders grow slowly, usually reaching heights of about four to 10 feet tall (just over one to three meters). Dwarf witch alders are also a slow-growing species, and usually reach a maximum height of about three feet (one meter). Alabama Fothergilla plants can grow as tall as large witch alders, which is why they are sometimes seen as being the same species.

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These shrubs are generally easy to grow and maintain. Most species appear to stand up well against insect infestation and are also resistant to many types of plant diseases. They are also tolerant of extreme temperatures, surviving periods of cold during the winter, as well as periods of high heat during the summer months, and although they are woody plants, they seldom require any sort of pruning. The only special measure a grower of Fothergilla shrubs must take is to keep the soil in which the shrubs are growing very moist and never allow it to dry out completely. Most species of this genus naturally grow in swampy areas, hence their demand for moist soil.

Fothergilla shrubs are attractive ornamental plants due to their white or creamy flowers. These flowers are often described as resembling a bottle-brush because of their spiky petals. Flowers typically bloom in clusters between the late winter months and the middle of spring, and have a pleasant sweet fragrance. Leaves appear on Fothergilla shrubs later than the flowers do, and are usually a dark green color. In the autumn, these leaves turn brilliant colors like red, gold, and orange before falling off the shrub's branches.

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