Thriller Fothergilla

Fothergilla gardenii's spring bouquet in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla gardenii’s spring bouquet (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

One of my favorite shrubs for sounding the arrival of spring is fothergilla, a southeastern U.S. native that thrives in sunny, moist (but well drained) locations in zones 5-8.  Like a woman with a full head of rollers in preparation for her big date, fothergilla makes a stunning debut in your spring garden as it unfurls dozens of bright, cylindrical blossoms atop its crown.  These white, bottle brush shaped flowers are sparklers at the tips of fothergilla’s branches, and for our winter weary senses, they are a sight to behold.  Did I mention the blooms also possess a delicate fragrance? Ahhhh, how can you resist this cheerful shrub? But wait, there’s more!

Fothergilla's frilly flowers in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla’s frilly flowers (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

To be most accommodating to gardeners, fothergilla comes in two sizes; the compact Fothergilla gardenii, which grows from 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, and the big brother Fothergilla major, topping out at 10 feet tall and wide (both are slow to reach full size). Because each sibling offers the same delightful spring display, the only decision you have to make is if you want something to fit politely between other shrubs and perennials in a garden bed, or if you want something with more uumph and personality, requiring its own stage.  Either way, you’ll find fothergilla to be a shrub worth the real estate it inhabits.

Fothergilla 'Blue Shadow' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ (photo: Centerton Nursery)

There are also a few choices with gardenii and major crosses (Fothergilla x intermedia); ‘Mount Airy’ is a vigorous hybrid fothergilla cultivar that was discovered by plantsman Michael Dirr at the Mt. Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing to 5 feet tall, it is noted for its profuse spring flowering, excellent summer foliage, brilliant fall color and consistently upright habit. Said to be the best of the blues, ‘Blue Shadow’, discovered as a bud sport from a young ‘Mount Airy’, is a compact, slower growing (to 5-6 feet) shrub featuring unusual misty blue-grey leaves (similar in color to blue hostas such as ‘Hadspen Blue’ and ‘Blue Mouse Ears’).

Fothergilla gardenii in the border in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla gardenii paired with geranium macrorrhizum (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Although there is a size difference between major and gardenii, the growth habit is consistently mounded and upright for both.  During the summer months they are densely covered with dark green, oval “ruffles-have-ridges” potato chip shaped leaves that are complementary to any combination of plants or shrubs.  Fothergilla gardenii is a long time resident in four of my garden beds; I pair it with dwarf evergreens, smaller deciduous shrubs such as ninebark and viburnum, even allowing geranium macrorrhizum to weave around its base. Just remember to use care if you plant fothergilla in a garden bed, as it is a slow grower that could easily be dominated by flourishing perennials and shrubs.

Fothergilla gardenii in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla gardenii’s kaleidoscope of fall colors (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Still, the show is far from over, as fall is the time that fothergilla (no matter which size you’ve chosen) finally reveals its true colors.  And what a show this little-to-medium shrub puts on!  Picture fire engine red, canary yellow, tangerine orange and purple merlot-all colors that we like to see (even if only in smaller doses).  Now imagine this combination all on one shrub.  Yes, you heard me right . . . all on one shrub.  Some years the display is different than others, with one or two dominating hues (such is the case with Fothergilla major ‘Red Licorice’), but I’m not exaggerating when I describe the potential for an incredibly diverse color wheel of options produced on a single shrub.

Fothergilla major 'Red Licorice' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Fothergilla major ‘Red Licorice’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

All in all, fothergilla is a shrub no sunny (to light shade) border should be without.  Easy to maintain, requiring minimal pruning due to its slow growth rate, no fertilizing, and not prone to fungus or pests (even furry critters aren’t that interested in its textured foliage). The only thing I’m not crazy about is the awkward name, and you can thank the 18th century physician from Essex, John Fothergill, for that one.  But, don’t hold it against the shrub . . . after all, what’s in a name?


  1. What a Beauty! I think the name is hilarious! Such a versatile shrub should be in everyone’s garden…

    • Thank you, Patty. I agree that this is a shrub anyone in the appropriate zones should add to their garden . . . and I don’t even think the horses would nibble it!

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