Fothergilla major

Before starting today’s entry, a note to local readers — there are still many apple varieties available for the second day of the Apple Festival tomorrow, including one of my favourites, the Salish apple.

Thank you again to Martin Deasy for guest-writing and photographing a series on the Hamamelidaceae. Martin, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in its Kew Diploma in Horticulture program, concludes the series with this entry.

The bottlebrush-like inflorescences of Fothergilla major–unlike anything else in the Hamamelidaceae–are just one more example of the family’s remarkable diversity of floral morphology. As with Parrotiopsis, what look like flowers are in fact pseudanthia–compound inflorescences that “mimic” individual flowers. What appear to be petals are in fact clavate (club-like) stamens with inflated filaments, up to 32 in each flower; numerous reduced flowers are packed together on a rachis to form a single inflorescence.

An upland species native to the highlands of the southeast U.S.A. (the Appalachians of North Carolina and Tennessee), Fothergilla major occurs at altitudes of up to 1000m, particularly on dry ridges. It grows into a small deciduous tree, to ca. 5m, often suckering from underground stems to form dense thickets. The relatively late (for the family) anthesis in late April-May likely represents an adaptation to the harsher climate at altitude (the other Fothergilla species–the less hardy Fothergilla gardenii–is restricted to the coastal plain of the south-eastern U.S., and flowers in mid-April).

Absence of petals is an inherited trait (symplesiomorphy) of tribe Fothergilleae, whose members exhibit a progression from insect- to wind-pollination. The two insect-pollinated taxa, Fothergilla and Parrotiopsis, are also both the most basal; the more derived taxa (respectively Parrotia, Sycopsis, Distylium and Distyliopsis) have adopted wind as the principal means of pollination.

The comparison of Fothergilla and Parrotiopsis is revealing: the two genera are extremely closely related; yet each has recruited a different organ as attractant, lending their inflorescences radically different appearances. Nevertheless, the infructescences are very similar–indeed fruit morphology is astonishingly highly conserved across the entire Hamamelidoideae, a subject for a future post.

Fothergilla major
Fothergilla major

7 responses to “Fothergilla major”

  1. Wendy Cutler

    I’m pleased to know that Martin is planning a future post. I look forward to it.

  2. Kerry Seifried

    Just to mention that at this time of year the Fothergilla has beautiful foliage, red/yellow/orange all on one plant. It’s a colourful plant for our fairly drab west coast fall.

  3. Barbara

    Fothergilla’s autumn colors are absolutely gorgeous – all shades of yellow, orange, red and purple. Just beginning to show themselves in my garden. And flower complexity is intriguing.

  4. Daniëlle Monbaliu

    I would like to ask to Martin Deasy if I can use this picture of Fothergilla for my lecture of Small schrubs and trees ? I’t for a local organisation here in Bruges.
    Kindest Regards,
    Daniëlle Monbaliu

  5. jessica

    Thanks for the articles about the wonderful Hamemelidaceae family. Each plant highlighted has been lovely.
    A stunning, large Fothergilla major is one of the gems of my community garden. It is nestled among other native plants beside our garden’s little pond and waterfall, where it really stands out and always gets compliments and questions. The feathery blooms in the Spring are adorable and it’s now aflame with fall colors. Even the shape and substance of the leaves are very attractive in mid-season, when the plant is out of bloom.
    It’s a winner and one of N. America’s most beautiful natives.
    Thanks for the interesting info about the flower construction.
    I always learn something from your posts.

  6. Daniel Mosquin

    The following comment was sent along by John F. Townsend, Staff Botanist at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation:
    “Thought you would like to know this about Fothergilla major’s range (from Alan Weakley’s Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States). He may even be leaving out, depending on how you interpret the text, the single county of occurrence in South Carolina, my home state. It is found there in the northwesternmost corner on the Blue Ridge Escarpment:
    ‘Fothergilla major (Sims) Loddiges, Large Witch-alder. Dry ridgetop forests of middle elevation ridges in the mountains, especially along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, summits and upper slopes of Piedmont monadnocks, north-facing bluffs in the lower Piedmont. April-May; July-October. C. NC west to ne. TN, south to nc. GA and nc. AL; disjunct in AR. [= RAB, FNA, K, S, W, Z; > F. monticola Ashe]'”

  7. martin deasy

    Oui, bien sûr, Daniëlle. Veuillez indiquer que j’en ai la propriété.
    Amicalement, MD

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