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Featured Plants - Witch Alder

Photo of Fothergilla gardenii - Photo by Gail SloaneThis rare spring-flowering shrub is known botanically as Fothergilla gardenii Linnaeus. It is in the witch-hazel family, Hamamelidaceae, along with Hamamelis (witch-hazel) and Liquidambar (sweetgum).

Witch-alder is a rather inconspicuous, thicket-forming, colonial shrub, usually rooting where the stem touches the ground. Its alternate deciduous leaves are about 2-6 cm long and may have shallow lobes or teeth along their margins, especially in the upper 2/3 of the leaf blade. The young leaves and stems are densely covered with star-shaped hairs; as they age, the stems and upper surfaces of the leaf blades may lose these hairs.

In spring witch-alder becomes conspicuous when it produces its white bottle-brush-like flower spikes at the tips of its branches before its leaves expand. The sepals and petals are small and inconspicuous and the many stamens are white and stick out from the short floral tube. After flowering the carpels begin to swell within the floral tube and short, beaked capsules are produced. The elongate, dark, shiny seeds are produced 2 per capsule.

Look for witch-alder in mid to late March when it can be found flowering on the edges of sphagnum swamps and bogs in Gadsden, Okaloosa and Walton Counties, northwest Florida. Because this species grows in wetlands it is listed as FACW in Rule 62-340, Florida Administrative Code.

Witch-alder is restricted to the coastal plain of the southeastern United States. It is uncommon to locally common throughout its range, which includes southeast Alabama, southeastern Georgia and scattered areas in North and South Carolina, as well as northern Florida. Fothergilla is unique to southeastern North America. It has two species, F. gardenii and F. major Loddiges.

There are two other shrubs in north Florida that may be confused with witch-alder in the field. Alnus serrulata or hazel alder (page 347, Betulaceae, in Florida Wetland Plants, An Identification Manual, 1998) has larger leaves, 5-10 cm long, with wavy, finely toothed margins. Hamamelis virginiana or witch-hazel is a non-wetland plant that has similarly shaped leaves, but these have wavy or undulate margins and may be rough on the upper surface.

Synonymy: includes Fothergilla parvifolia Kearney, F. carolina (Linnaeus) Britton. F. alnifolia L. f. is an illegitimate name. Listed by R. K. Godfrey (Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama, 1988) and others as Fothergilla gardeni Murray.

Fothergilla gardenii leaves and fruit illustrations (Drawn by John David Tobe)

Illustration of Fothergilla gardeniiIllustration of Fothergilla gardenii fruit


Last updated: September 21, 2011

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