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






March: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

March, noun – the third month of the Julian calendar, verb from middle French meaning to trample, (Not in my garden, please.) To move in a direct and purposeful manner (as toward the garden).  Be sure to wear your boots!

By the time y’all read this winter may be gone—or not. We might be able to get into the garden—or not.  It may still be raining three out of every five days whether it needs to—or not. And so goes the Piedmont Carolina winter lament. The magnolia in the front yard never had a chance this year. On a brighter note, it appears that the vast majority of the 350,000 wildflower and pollinator seeds I sowed have germinated. The grand experiment continues. I’ll keep you posted.

The following are the things you should be able to do in March. However, if the current climate pattern continues you may want to consider turning your yard into a large scale rain garden. Hey, they don’t have to be mowed.

Lawn Care
Cool season grasses (Fescue and Kentucky bluegrass) can be fertilized with a non-slow release fertilizer such as 10-10-10. DO NOT fertilize cool season grasses after March 15 and do not use a slow release fertilizer now. Save it for Fall. Fertilizing later than mid-March will increase the likelihood of turf diseases in the heat and humidity of summer.

Apply crabgrass control to all lawns when the forsythia is in bloom and before the dogwoods reach full bloom.

Commence mowing activities when you can do so without losing your mower in the mud. Cool season grasses should be mowed at a height between three and four inches. Warm season grasses are still dormant; Your turn will come later. Mowing frequency should be such that you do not remove more than one-third of the growth.  Leave the clippings on the lawn to help reduce fertilizer needs by up to 25 percent. If circumstances are such that more than one-third has to be cut, collect the clippings and use them as mulch. They DO NOT belong in the landfill.

Feed your shrubbery remembering “moderation in all things.”

Shade trees can be fertilized now, however unless you have poor soil (as indicated by your SOIL TEST) these plants can usually fend for themselves.

Fertilize asparagus beds early in March before the spears emerge.

Emerging flowering bulbs can be fertilized now.

This entire section is based on the rain stopping and the ground not refreezing and actually drying out (whatever that means. I’ve forgotten.)

Trees and shrubs can be transplanted now as well as fruit trees and grapevines up to bud break. Plants planted now will require more diligent water management through the summer than ones planted last Fall.

Perennials can be planted now.

Start annuals and warm season vegetables inside if you haven’t already.  (I know about you first tomato freaks.)

Rose bushes can be planted now.

Cruciferous vegetables (E.g. cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) can be set out in the garden in the middle of the month.

Root veggies (E.g. potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots) can be planted in March as well as salad greens (E.g. lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kohirabi and bok choy) can also be planted in mid-March.

Prune fruit trees.

Dead head spring flowering annuals like pansies (Viola x hybrids) as the blossoms fade to prolong flowering.

Roses can be pruned in the latter half of the month.

Overgrown broadleaf shrubs can still be severely whacked.

Check for the following insect pests:  euonymus scale, juniper-spruce spider mites, hybrid rhododendron borers. Spray as necessary following label directions.

Apply dormant oil to fruit trees to eliminate several insects. This is especially important if you have just pruned the trees.

Spray apple and pear trees in bloom with streptomycin to prevent fire blight.

Stuff to Do to Get Ready for Prime Time:
Check all your gardening equipment to ensure proper working order. You don’t want to spend the first really great gardening day running around looking for parts for your broken garden gizmo.

Think about experimenting with new varieties of annuals, perennials and veggies.  Experimenting is fun and has few lasting side effects.

Photo: Daffodils, credit: A. Laine.

No Leaves, No Problem: All You Need Is A Twig — Tree Identification in Winter

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

If you are hiking in the forest this winter or even ‘intentionally walking your own yard’ (recent post on and want to identify a tree, the best way to identify the species in the wintertime is to use the morphological features of the tree that botanists utilize. To start with, all you need is a twig! 

I recently attended a Tree Identification In Winter Workshop by Matt Jones, Extension Agent, Horticulture at the Chatham County Center in Pittsboro where I was introduced to such precise methods and I practiced identifying twigs using the ‘tools of the trade’1.  To differentiate between character traits of tree species one can use the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Dichotomous Key (Key) developed by Dr. Alexander Krings for our particular geographical region of the Piedmont2. Dichotomous keys start by presenting the user with two sets of plant characteristics in a couplet form, then the user has to select one of the two choices, which more accurately describes the specimen in hand1. The user’s choice leads them to the next couplet and so on until they reach a species name and there are no more choices to make. The Key gives the species name in Latin to avoid confusion from the many common names a tree species can have. An easy way to obtain the common name if you are not familiar with the Latin species name is to use the online NCSU Plant Toolbox3.

The features of the tree which are visible in winter and which are most diagnostic of each species are based on the woody plant morphology which does not include the bark of the tree. Bark can be diagnostic for some trees with very pronounced characteristics like the smooth bark of a beech (Fagus grandiflora) for example but depending on the age of the tree or the position of the bark on the trunk, different bark texture may be observed on the same tree which can lead to confusion and it is not always diagnostic. For the typically difficult genus Quercus or oak, it also helps to look for acorns around the base of the tree as the acorn’s morphological features can differentiate between species.

The main morphological features included in the Key are the following: the arrangement and position of buds, bud scales, arrangement of leaf scars, pith anatomy, number of vascular bundle scars, stipular scars and armament. A hand lens, a set of pruners and a bright area to work in will also help in discerning these relatively small species-specific character traits on the twig. It is essential that the user know the vocabulary4 of the Key, such as but not limited to:

Petiole – The stalk that joins the leaf to the stem.

Alternate – The arrangement is at alternating points from one side of the stem to the other or staggered.

Opposite – The arrangement is on the same spot on stem but on opposite sides of the stem.

Leaf scar – A visible thickened crescent mark on stem where the leaf was attached.

Pith Anatomy: The core of the stem can be homogenous (solid and uniform), diaphragmed (sections), chambered (hollow sections) or excavated (hollowed out).

Diaphragmed: Horizontal breaks in the core of the stem and each section is filled with material.

Bud scale:  A modified leaf that forms a protective covering over the bud.

Valvate bud scale: The scale forms two parts of the coating like a clamshell. 

Bud Scale Scar: The concentric rings formed by bud scales from the previous year’s terminal bud.

Stipular scars: A pair of appendages found on many leaves where the petiole meets the stem, tiny and attached around the stem and can be slit-like or ring-like.

To practice my newly acquired knowledge, I cut a small twig from a tree in my front yard and brought it inside with, to my surprise, a caterpillar.

Twig of tree (3 cm diameter) Photo by Wendy Diaz on January 25, 2020
Caterpillar on tree twig. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

The first step was to determine to which structural group the tree belongs by deciding if the leaf scars were alternate or opposite.  The leaf scars were alternate .

Black arrows–alternate arrangement of leaf scars. Grey arrow-encircling stipular scar.
Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

For the second step, the stem had to be sliced longitudally so it’s pith anatomy could be examined. The second couplet asked if the pith was chambered/diaphragmed or homogeneous. The pith of this stem was diaphragmed so the next step using the Key was to proceed to Group 2 where the couplet asked if the stipular scars were encircling the twig or if they were absent.  

Diaphragmed pith anatomy with horizontal breaks in the core of the stem with each section is filled with material. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

The stipular scars were clearly encircling the twig so that lead to the next couplet.

Green arrow – valvate but (two parts). Gray arrow – stipular scar encircling the stem. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

This couplet described the bud as either cap-like and pointed apex or valvate and rounded apex.  These buds were valvate (two parts) with a rounded apex guiding me to the final lead, which is the species name of Liriodendron tulipifera or Tulip Poplar!

Liriodendron tulipifera or Tulip Poplar photo by Wendy Diaz January 31, 2020

The NCSU Dichotomous Key can be a little daunting if you are not a botanist, especially if the tree species you are trying to identify requires multiple couplets and it is at the end of the Key such as Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam). I found clicking on the + symbol next to each couplet, which links to a photo of an example image, is a great visual aid and helped me on whether or not to continue on to the next couplet or backtrack. Practice makes perfect, but if you get frustrated with the Dichotomous Key, you can always wait for spring and the leaves to come out or identify your trees with leaves by attending the companion workshop offered by Matt Jones in September 5.



Online tool: NCSU Botanist’s Little Helper: 2.

Online tool: NCSU Plant Toolbox: 3.



Book References:

Terminology: Plant Identification Terminology An Illustrated Glossary James G. Harris Melinda Woolf Harris second edition

Advanced reference: Woody Plants of the Southeastern United States: A Winter Guide, Ron Lance, University of Georgia Press

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’

by Flora O’Brien, EMGV

This is the time of year we appreciate architectural elements in the winter garden. After the dazzle of fall we could use a bit of color, especially when the days are dreary or snow is on the ground. Enter the red twig dogwood.

Red twig dogwood. Photo by F. O’Brien

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima,’ commonly called Tatarian dogwood, is an eye-catching shrub with bright red stems. In Spring there are gray-green leaves variegated with pure white edges, which last into fall. As the leaves disappear, the red stems remain. There are flowers, white, small and mostly hidden by the leaves in the spring. Drupes ripen by mid-summer and are enjoyed by the birds. The shrub grows eight to 10 feet tall and about five feet wide. The stems are reddest if the plant is grown in full sun. It tolerates various soil conditions and a moist, well-drained site. The new growth has the most color so it is advisable to prune back some of the oldest growth to six inches in early spring.

Elegantissima (synonymous with ‘Argenteomarginata’) tolerates deer and rabbits and is attractive to birds and butterflies. It grows wild in central Asia where the Tatars live, giving it its common name. All in all, the red twig dogwood would be a most lovely addition to your garden.

Resource & Further Reading

December: To do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

How did it get to be December already? Wasn’t it 100 degrees and October yesterday? Unbelievable! So, I was looking at last year’s December calendar and I can’t think of how to improve it. Therefore, y’all get an encore! Heck, come next year it might be a new tradition.

The holidays
Are upon us.
It’s cold enough
To prune the euonymus.

Most of the leaves
Have fallen down
And into the compost
Raked and blown.

The door is closed
On the potting shed.
Most of the garden
Has been put to bed.

But before the year
Turns over anew
There are a few more things
Left to do.

Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ Little Gem Trees CC BY-ND

Mow the fescue
One more time.
Remove the leaves
To keep it fine.

Landscape plants
Can still be planted
There in that space
Where you’ve always wanted.

Prune the nandina
And red-berried holly.
Arrange them on the table
To make it look jolly.

Herbaceous perennials
Can still be cut back.
While weeds and “bad” trees
Can be thoroughly wacked.

While some of us think
Spraying is fun
In the month of December
There should be none.

Other Stuff That’s Mostly Fun
The Christmas tree
Really needs water
And will appreciate
Being away from the heater.

To keep your poinsettias
Cheery and bright
Put them in the room
With the sunniest light.

As to your soil recommendations
Apply the lime.
Save the fert
For the warmer springtime.

If it’s viticulture
Or an orchard you seek
Order plants now
To plant by March’s second week.

For your strawberries
A sweet straw bed
Either wheat or pine
A blanket for their heads.

May your holidays
Be blessed and merry
As bright and cheery
As the holly’s berry.

And may next year’s garden
Be like my Grandmother’s
A bounty for you
And a bounty for others.

Further Reading
December is a good time to explore the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: