Fothergilla Flowers: What Are We Looking At?

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This all started last week when David Wiesenberg, Julia Wiesenberg and moi were walking at Secrest Arboretum. We passed a fothergilla plant and for a few milliseconds, oohed and aahed at the flowers. I electronically captured a few images, and continued apace. David, however, lingered.  “What are we looking at?”, said he.


Fothergilla flowers, fragrant as can be, said Ms. Julia and me. But, how strange they are, David replied. So, we actually took a look, and silly as it may seem, realized we had not quite taken in the flower at hand. The showy part of the flower is a mass of stamens. In fact, what truly catches the eye are the white filaments of the stamens, with a painterly splash of yellow, the pollen in the anthers atop each. 


fothergilla flowers
Stamens. No petals. 


We had never processed this until now, or rather then. Lower on that flower spike, revealed more easily in the coming days as the stamens dried up, are the pistils, the female parts of the flower. They had wispy styles topped by stigmas receptive to pollen and the ovaries at their base that will ripen into the fruits to enclose the seeds.  Since the male and female flower parts are not in the same blossom (a “perfect” flower), but are on the same plant on these flower stalks, this is a monoecious flower arrangement.


fothergilla flowers spent
Note the pistils with curved styles lower on the flower stalk.


fothergilla flower parts
Detached mass of stamens at top, pistils with styles and ovaries on flower spike to right, and leaf to the left.


I, of course did not know any of this then, other than the fact that the showy parts of the flower were clearly stamens. I learned a lot more from a BYGL Inservice chat with Curtis Young and Joe Boggs and a wonderful article in a March 2008 Plantsman article by Rick Darke. Joe sent me the link, but do not give him too much credit; just Google fothergilla flowers.


In the article, Rick Darke also provides a wealth of background on the genus Fothergilla (both botanical and common name).  Two native Carolina-area species, the dwarf bog-dweller Fothergilla gardenia and the larger upland Fothergilla major languished as horticulturally popular plants until they naturally found each other and Fothergilla x intermedia  hybrids were noticed by horticulturists.


The first significant of these was found at Mt. Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati by Michael Dirr. He selected it as the  Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mt. Airy’ cultivar, and the floodgates opened from there. Fothergillas are now extremely popular small (typically under five feet and many considerably smaller), native shrubs for sunny sites. Fragrant, showy flowers, pleasant scalloped green leaves with varying shadings of blue in cultivars, and excellent fall color of yellows, oranges, purples and reds.


fothergilla fall color

Fothergilla fall color at Secrest Arboretum


Mt. AIry fothergilla
'Mt. Airy' fothergilla readied for prize-giving at one of our Secrest Schools.


Looking at the leaves, you might imagine that this witch-alder is in the Hamamelidaceae, the witch-hazel family. And you would be right! It is indeed related and in the same family as witch-hazel, winter hazel (Corylopsis), parrotia, and – sweetgum.  More on this family in the future. 


Note: The Mt. Airy Forest/Arboretum  location in Cincinnati is also known as one of the first urban forest restorations in the United States, with a million tree planting project led by the first state forester of Ohio, Edmund Secrest, in the 1920s and 1930s.  In 1908, Edmund Secrest also started what became known as the Secrest Arboretum at what is now known as the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center of Ohio State University in Wooster, Ohio.