I was first introduced to the beauty of Fothergilla major by the late gardener Colin Little, who regularly opened his stunning Dandenong Ranges garden ‘Hillcrest’, located in Sherbrooke, Victoria, as part of the Australian Open Garden scheme. This beautiful plant serves as a reminder to me of the generosity of gardeners in sharing their passion and experience with others and I will be forever grateful to Colin for taking the time to show me the delights of this wonderful deciduous shrub.
Fothergilla major, otherwise known as the mountain witch alder, is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family and is native to the woodlands of Southeastern United States. As its family name suggests, it is a close relative of the witch hazel. I grow the cultivar ‘Mt Airy’ named after the city in North Carolina. It is a multi-stemmed, gently suckering shrub that grows to around 1.5m by about as much wide. It is not to be pruned but rather left to its own devices where it will grow to achieve a lovely thicket of gorgeous foliage.
Preferring well drained, slightly acidic soil, in Australia they perform well in light shade or where they receive morning sun whereas more open sunny positions are suitable in milder climates. They are quite hardy shrubs once mature and will tolerate dry spells so long as they have a good layer of mulch to keep the soil humus rich and the roots nice and cool.
I must admit I was initially drawn to this shrub for its fiery autumn display. Can one ever have enough?! It has that ‘gold star’ autumn performance of multi-toned foliage with the shrub holding leaves in brilliant yellows, oranges and reds all at the same time. In full flight you simply can’t walk past without stopping and admiring the beauty of it all.
Recently however, I have begun to appreciate Fothergilla major for it’s mid spring flush of delightful cream coloured bottle-brush flowers that cover the entire bush. Call me a heretic but by October in the Dandenong Ranges I am totally done with all the eye-watering intensity of camellias, magnolias and azaleas. I’m ready for the more calming shades of blues, mauves and purples such as the lilacs, and I find that this shrub provides the perfect accompaniment to those colours at this time of year. Fothergilla major may share centre stage in the autumn, however its most beguiling trait is the subtle understated beauty that it provides in the spring.
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