One of the hardest things about recommending plants is that if you use only the common name of a plant, it may mean one plant to you and a different plant to someone else. Common plant names can be confusing and sometimes downright funny.
I try to use what I call the most common of the common names. This is also called the official common name, but even this can vary from region to region. Some plants have three or four official common names.
When we talk about plants, it is almost always easier to use their common names: they are typically easier to pronounce and simpler to understand. If I said that red maple is beautiful, most people would understand what tree I was referring to; however, if I used only the scientific name and said that Acer rubrum is beautiful, most people would ask, “What plant are you talking about?”
Because of the common name versus the scientific name confusion, it is always a good idea to have a working knowledge of the scientific names. Don’t worry about pronouncing them; simply jot them down on note cards or in your gardening journal. This is extremely helpful when looking plants up in reference guides to learn more about them, or working with your horticulturist or designer to ensure that the plant you want is actually what you get.
Do you have Oreos?
I could list all kinds of plant names that I have heard incorrectly renamed over the years. My favorite is, “Do you have any Stella de Oreos?” I am sure they meant to say the daylily Stella d’ Oro. Perhaps they were thinking of my favorite cookie the Oreo, which I stash in my desk. I am also occasionally asked what I think about the liquid fertilizer Monty’s Joy Sauce, which is correctly named Monty’s Joy Juice. If I could only remember them all, I would write a book.
Occasionally there is a plant that doesn’t have just one funny renaming but several, such as the plant dwarf fothergilla, Fothergilla gardenii, and large fothergilla, Fothergilla major. I have been asked if we carried any Dr. Gilla plants, dwarf or large father plants, and my personal favorite, Father Gilligan’s. If I weren’t so serious about great plants I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face, but somehow I knew exactly what they wanted and took them right to it.
Fothergilla’s year-round appeal
Both of these types of fothergillas are incredibly long-lived plants. The only characteristic that separates them is their size. Dwarf fothergilla, Fothergilla gardenii, is the smaller of the two, growing only 3 to 5 feet tall and generally equally wide. Large fothergilla, Fothergilla major, grows 6 to 10 feet tall and matures at around 5 to 6 feet wide.
This true four-season plant has something beautiful to share in the garden spring, summer, fall, and winter. In the spring, white flowers, 1 to 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, emerge just prior to leafing out or just as the small leaves appear, making a nice clean show before the beautiful foliage takes the attention away from the flowers.
Summertime brings incredible foliage. The dark, bluish-green leaves are simple and hard to describe. They seem round with slightly wavy margins, much like a witch hazel leaf. It is a very elegant leaf.
Fall brings the most incredible fall color; you have to see it in person to believe it. Yellow, orange, red, and even purple can be found on the same plant and sometimes on the same leaves.
In the winter you are left to enjoy its fabulous shape and twiggyness. It appears neat and tidy without its leaves, making it the perfect plant for someone who doesn’t like to prune or who dislikes plants that have a mind of their own. It has a very natural formal appeal without any pruning.
Fothergilla’s growing conditions
This plant will thrive in an area where the soil is slightly acidic, much like an azalea but without all the problems. It performs well in our clay soils and can be grown in sun or part shade, although you will see more flower production in full sun.
There are several cultivated varieties of dwarf fothergilla available. Mt. Airy is the most popular, a large form growing 5 to 6 feet tall. Another popular one is Blue Mist, with its interesting bluish foliage. Unfortunately, Blue Mist doesn’t seem to perform well in our area and there are some concerns about its cold-hardiness. Other than the concerns about Blue Mist specifically, I have never heard or read any negative comments about growing Fothergilla. It has no major problems or pests, making it an excellent low-maintenance choice for the garden.
All the funny and eccentric common names I have heard over the years can only mean one thing: serious gardeners must have a great sense of humor. The next time you are hiking around Kentucky, look for a native shrub with the official common name hearts-a-bursting-with-love. I am serious! The scientific name for this plant is Euonymus americanus, but is also called the strawberry-bush. Gardening makes me smile; I hope it makes you smile, too.