No other plant native to South Carolina has such fragrant and beautiful spring blooms and stunning fall color as the witch-alders. Fothergilla was named after Dr. John Fothergill, an English physician and gardener who funded the travels of John Bartram through the Carolinas in the 1700’s. These beautiful shrubs have been planted in both American and English gardens for over 200 years, including gardens of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Two species of Fothergilla are native to South Carolina – F. major (mountain witch-alder) and F. gardenii (dwarf witch-alder). There are several cultivars available, but the most prevalent and showy is ‘Mt. Airy’. This cultivar is a hybrid between the two species, flowers profusely, and grows from 5 to 6 feet tall.
‘Mt. Airy’ has the most brilliant fall color, with bright yellows, oranges, and reds on each plant. Fall color is more intense when witch alders receive at least 5 to 6 hours of sun per day
Witch alders are very shade tolerant, but flower more profusely in the spring when planted in partially sunny sites. The white, bottle brush-shaped blooms appear before the foliage appears, and their sweet fragrance is much like that of honey. The flowers have no petals, but are 2-inch spikes of bright white stamens.
Witch alders are relatively trouble free shrubs, with few insect pest or disease problems. They rarely require pruning, but do slowly sucker and thus will naturally become wider over time. Both species will grow well in moist, well-drained acid soils that are rich in organic matter. Once established, witch alders are relatively drought tolerant, but will benefit from irrigation during periods of summer drought. They are very cold hardy and can be planted throughout South Carolina. The fall is the best time to plant shrubs in order to quickly become well established.
Fothergilla species are now relatively rare in our state due to habitat disturbance. This, along with their beauty, makes them the perfect choice for naturalizing. Additionally, we obtain our sense of place in many instances from the flora in our area, and planting witch alders will help give us a sense of place in our Southern landscapes. For more information, see HGIC 1093, Fothergilla.