Fothergilla ‘Mt Airy’ – Spectacular Orange Autumn Color – Southern Style

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

One of things I miss after moving to the south, is the brilliant orange fall color of the sugar maples (Acer saccharum) ubiquitous to Southern Ontario in Canada where I grew up. Which is why, I was pleasantly surprised last November by the similarly brilliant color of my recently planted Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ cultivar. Although not a tree, this shrub is well known in the south for its gorgeous fall color among its other attributes.

Fall orange color of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken November 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Basics

Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ is a deciduous shrub native to Southeastern United States[1]. It is a member of the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) and its common names are dwarf fothergilla and Mt. Airy fothergilla[2]. ‘Mt. Airy’ is a hybrid fothergilla cultivar and was discovered by Michael A. Dirr at the Mt. Airy Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio–not in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It may be a cross between two natives Fothergilla gardenia and Fothergilla major. The shrub prefers acidic organically rich, well-drained soils with medium moisture in both full sun and part shade conditions. The shrub grows to three to five feet in height and with a similar spread. There are no serious insect or disease problems with this cultivar but recently, in 2019, leaf spots resulting in defoliation were observed in South Carolina caused by Pseudocercospora fothergillae[3]. Avoiding plant stress and practicing good plant hygiene by collecting up the diseased leaves should control this problem. It has showy white flowers that bloom in April, deep green foliage in the summer, excellent late fall color and an upright branching habit that is attractive in the winter. It definitely has appeal in the garden landscape during all four seasons.

Below: Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ shrub through the seasons: Spring (April 2020), summer (2020), fall (November, 2019) and winter (photo taken December, 2018 shortly after it was planted.)

Gorgeous Fall Color

The fall leaves range in color from yellow to orange and red. They are frost resistant resulting in a late November show of intense color in the Piedmont area. Of course, the color depends on the weather of the previous growing season but Mt. Airy Fothergilla has better fall color than other cultivars like ‘Blue Shadow’[4].

Below: Close up photographs taken on November 28, 2019 of the beautiful orange and yellow foliage of the shrub one year after it was planted in an area that receives afternoon sun.

Other Attributes: Spring Flowers, Summer Foliage and Attractive Branching Habit in Winter

The shrub is most easily identified by its distinctive flowers that are like ‘bottlebrush-like spikes’, one to three inches long that start out globular and then stretch out to become columnar at the ends of the stems. An interesting fact is the flowers have no petals and are comprised only of stamens. The flowers are fragrant and have a faint honey-like sweet scent which attract bees and butterflies.

Spring flowers of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken April 8, 2020 by Wendy Diaz
Closeup of flower of Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ Photo taken April 8, 2020 by Wendy Diaz

The leathery deep green leaf is ovate-shaped and bluish gray underneath. The margins of the leaf are serrated at the top and smooth at its base. Birds love the thick leaves of this understory shrub as it provides them cover and shelter at midlevels in the vertical landscape. The rounded shape of the mature shrub lends itself to a low maintenance hedge. Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ is also deer and rabbit resistant. The zigzag branching habit is particularly noticeable in the winter and adds interest in an otherwise dormant garden landscape4. My young shrub has a unique branch habit that reminds me of up stretched arms.

If you need a shrub for a border, hedge or foundation planting consider the cultivar Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy. It will improve the aesthetic value and ornamental interest in your garden landscape year round while also providing support for wildlife. I have to wait another few weeks for my Mt. Airy Fothergilla leaves to turn from green to that familiar orange color but it will be worth the wait as my dull garden landscape this time of year needs a splash of color even though it is on a smaller scale than a maple tree.

November 28, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

I also hope you had a chance to enjoy the bright fall colors in our beautiful state of North Carolina this fall but in the future I highly recommend a trip to see the brilliant orange colors of the Sugar Maples of Southern, Ontario when you can travel again.

Below: The brilliant orange color of Sugar Maple trees is beautiful next to a clear blue sky, the deep green of pines or the gray limestone buildings of Kingston, Ontario on a crisp fall day in October 19, 2016. Photos by Wendy Diaz