How to Grow and Care for Witch Alder (Fothergilla)

Spread the love

Fothergilla is a small genus of shrubs with few recognized species. Native to the southeastern states in North America, this plant commonly grows in swamps and wet woodland regions. 

This perennial, also known as the witch alder, is a small deciduous shrub. The two types, of fothergilla that are the best known are F. gardenia and F. major (Mountain witch alder).

It is grown as an ornamental plant for its fragrant, bottle-brush-like flowers in Spring. These flowers change color from white to purple, red, and orange in the Summer and finally turn yellow in Autumn. 

The fragrance of the creamy white flowers can be extremely strong so that you smell the flowers before you see them. 


This slow-growing perennial is grown for its super Autumn colors as well as its fragrant, attractive flower spikes. The scientific name of Witch Alder takes its name from the English doctor John Fothergill, who was responsible for introducing Fothergilla to the UK in the 18th Century.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameFothergilla
Common namesWitch alder
Height3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 m)
Width3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 m)
USDA Plant Hardiness ZoneZones 5 to 8
Native toSouth-eastern USA
Blooming seasonSpring
Flower colorsWhite
Plant specific featuresFlowers appear before the leaves, brilliant orange and red colored leaves in fall

How to Plant and Grow a Witch Alder Bush

Where to Plant

Fothergilla is a good choice as a specimen planted in a lawn, or it can perform equally well when used in a mixed border with other woodland-loving shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, or camellias. 

It can grow up to 10 feet (2 m) tall, so it is good to position the fothergilla shrub at the back of a mixed border.

A small growing variety such as F. gardenia can also be grown in a container and placed on a terrace or patio.

Fothergilla will do best in a position that receives plenty of sunshine. South, East, or West-facing sites are good for ensuring the fothergilla shrub receives sufficient sunlight.

Witch alder has very soft, downy stems, that children find unusual and interesting to touch. Therefore, this is a very good plant to include in a texture or nature garden, or in any garden frequented by children. 

When to Plant

Fothergilla shrubs can be planted in the Spring or fall. However, the best time to plant fothergilla is in the Autumn. It is easier to keep it moist for the first season (which is essential) since the ground will naturally be damper and watering will be less onerous.

Witch Alder Shrubs Care and Maintenance


Plant witch-alder in damp soil that is rich in humus or organic matter. Ideally, it should be cool and well-draining, and slightly acidic. If necessary, use a soil conditioner and provide conditions for other ericaceous plants.


As with any newly planted shrub, it is very important to keep it moist for the first growing season. This ensures that the new shrub can grow an extensive, deep, and robust network of roots, allowing it to draw moisture and nutrients from deep within the ground.

This acid-loving shrub is native to damp, woodland soil. It’s important that even an established fothergilla doesn’t dry out. To aid with moisture retention in the soil, provide the shrub with a mulch of organic material in the Spring. 


Fothergilla is an acid-loving plant, like a rhododendron or camellia. Frequent watering, especially if using rainwater, can lead to an imbalance in the soil’s composition. 

A soil test may reveal that the acidity needs supplementing in order to provide optimum growing conditions for the fothergilla. 

You can use a liquid fertilizer designed to use for acid-loving plants. Dilute it with water and follow the manufacturers in regard to dosage and frequency of application. As a general guide, you can feed monthly starting in the Spring and ending mid-Summer. 

An application of organic mulch in the Autumn will also keep the plant healthy during the winter. But, the mulch shouldn’t come into direct contact with the fothergilla stem.


The sunnier the position of the witch alder, the more colorful your shrub will be in the Autumn. 

Unless you are in a particularly hot region, fothergilla will prefer to grow in a sunny location. It will however thrive in dappled sun, or even in partial shade in hotter climates.

Pruning and Repotting

Once the flowers have faded, it is a good idea to give the fothergilla shrub a light pruning. This will keep it in shape and keep it balanced. Always remove any dead, diseased, or decaying branches as soon as you spot them.

You can also remove any branches that are crossing over each other or are in any way malformed. When removing these branches, you should cut them back to a main stem.

However, more formal pruning is not required. 


Fothergilla can be propagated from seeds or from cuttings. Whilst it is possible to sow seeds of fothergilla in a cold frame in either Autumn or winter, you should bear in mind that they will not germinate until the Spring –  two years after sowing!

If propagating fothergilla cultivars or hybrids, you cannot use the seeds, as they will probably not result in plants that are clones of the parents and may even be sterile. 

A more reliable method to propagate witch alder is by taking stem cuttings in the summer. Or you can layer low-growing branches in the summer.

Fothergilla also produces suckers that will root easily. Finally, you can dig up sections of the root, and you will find the pieces of root will also root naturally with little work.

Pests and Diseases

There are no special pest or disease problems from which the witch-alder is troubled. Fothergilla is resistant to deer.

Occasionally, during the winter months, a fothergilla may be troubled by foraging rabbits. You can provide winter fencing (like chicken wire) to protect the fothergilla if rabbits cause too much damage. This protection can be removed in the Spring.

Temperature and Humidity

 When growing in the plant’s natural hardiness zone, there is little you need to do in order to prepare the plant for winter. 

Other Uses for Fothergilla

Its perfumed flowers attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. It is not known to be a toxic plant, to birds, domestic animals, livestock, or humans. 

Because it is a slow-growing perennial shrub, you can plant fothergilla even in gardens that are not very spacious.  

Types of  Fothergilla You Can Grow

Small fothergilla varieties such as Fothergilla gardenii can be used at the front of a border, or equally planted in containers or pots. F. gardenii won’t grow more than 3 feet (1 m)  in height and this species flowers early in the season. 

F. gardenia “Mount Airy” is a dwarf fothergilla cultivar that will grow to around 4 feet (1 m) in height and width. This deciduous shrub bears pretty bottle-brush white flowers in Spring that have an unusual, and strong scent, a bit like aniseed or licorice. 

Its leaves resemble those of the witch hazel (which is a shrub or tree in the same family as the witch alder). 

F. major grows up to 8 feet (2.5 m) tall, produces leaves that can be 5 inches (13 cm) long, and flowers considerably later than F. gardenia.

Fothergilla can be used to create a hedge, or backdrop behind other plants. Multiple plants will be required to use in this way. 


This rustic shrub is slow growing. As well as having lovely perfumed flowers that appear before the leaves, fothergilla will add a lot of color to your Autumn garden too. 

Although it grows best in damp soil, fothergilla will tolerate both wet soil and drought. So, fothergilla really is an adaptable shrub, and also low-maintenance – well worth including in your planting scheme.

*image by PantherMediaSeller/depositphotos

Spread the love