Reconsidering a weirdly named plant


I used to dismiss fothergilla. Though intrigued by the name, I thought its flowers were boring. Then I met Steve Wright, curator of plant collections at Jenkins. He's the first to hold the job since Jenkins was designated a national collection of azaleas, rhodies and mountain laurels by the American Public Gardens Association, which means the collection is open to botanical institutions that might want to take cuttings and germ plasma. Steve is a native plant enthusiast, to say the least.

Which, during a lengthy chat last week, led us to the subject of dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), pictured here in full spring bloom - and then to the plant itself, which is growing happily in Jenkins' Green Ribbon Native Plant garden. Fothergilla is in the witch hazel family, which is obvious from the blooms. They also have a faint honey scent. Very nice. Steve loves this plant in no small measure because of its fall color; the blue-green leaves turn red, yellow, purple, all at once. "All in all, a great plant for the home garden," he says.

And talk about versatile. It grows about 3 feet by 3 feet in anything from full sun to full shade. Looks especially cool in masses. And, hard to believe, fothergilla is not especially prone to disease or insect pests. Sounds too good to be true.

Now about the name ... Fothergilla was named for John Fothergill, an English physician with a side interest in botany and natural history who corresponded with John Bartram for more than two decades. Gardenii comes from Alexander Garden (true story), who first collected the plant and is better known for being the namesake of the gardenia.

Now that I know the origin of the name(s),  Fothergilla gardenii is sounding better and better.