(Ten years ago, an introduction by The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University graced the Field Notes page. We’re reprinting it in the hopes of encouraging more such considered and carefully trialed introductions.)

The use of native plants in the landscape is more than just a passing fad; it is a clear recognition of the wealth of worthy plants we have growing in the wild all around us. Many natives exhibit desirable characteristics, such as the ability to adapt to a wide range of site conditions, disease and insect resistance, and moderate growth rates, that put them in the category of plants that have more value than just sustainability in the landscape.

One genus that deserves to be recognized for these characteristics is Fothergilla. The number of new cultivars of Fothergilla that have come on the market over the last decade is quite remarkable. Adding to that list, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Jamaica Plain, MA, introduced F. gardenii ‘Harold Epstein’ (‘Harold Epstein’ dwarf fothergilla) a number of years ago.

The late Harold Epstein of Larchmont, NY, was an extraordinary plantsman well-known for his extensive plant collections. He collected this diminutive Fothergilla species from the wild in Jessup County, GA. The Arnold Arboretum received a layer of this selection from Epstein’s garden in 1988 and initially grew it in a protected shade nursery to test it for cold hardiness. The plant did very well under these conditions over the following five years, reaching 12 inches to 15 inches tall and more than 2 feet wide.

The overall form of this dwarf Fothergilla is a low, dense, mounding shrub. Its oval leaves are 1 inch to 2-1/2 inches long by 1 inch across and are a dark green in summer, turning a mix of yellow to vibrant orange-red in fall. The new growth has a purple tone to the leaf, adding another highlight to the plant.

White, fragrant, 1-1/2-inch-long, bottlebrushlike flowers appear in late April to early May. The blooms are not as numerous as with some of the other forms of F. gardenii, but they are quite noticeable. The size of both the leaf and flower are in proportion to the overall plant, and they combine to give it a very delicate appearance.

Hardy to Zone 6, ‘Harold Epstein’ performs very well in full sun, where it remains compact and dense, but it becomes more open and leggy under shady conditions. Moisture-retentive, yet well-drained, soil seems to provide the best growing condition. The plant offers excellent fall color in full sun and fades to obscurity in heavier shade.

This slow-growing member of the Hamamelidaceae has impressed us with its performance over the past 15 years—especially the way it has been able to deal with our seasonal drought conditions and winters with deep frosts and very little snow cover.

Fothergilla as a whole is insect- and disease-resistant, and ‘Harold Epstein’ is no different. Propagation of this fine cultivar is similar to that of the species, rooting from softwood cutting using 3,000 to 5,000 potassium salt of IBA in late May through mid-July. Overwintering is also no different than that of the species—’Harold Epstein’ needs to be kept growing after rooting and undisturbed until budbreak the following year.

Like the species, the cultivar suckers and spreads to form a mat, but it is best thought of as a rock garden or accent plant. It also performs beautifully in a perennial border and works well as a niche planting. Place it in an area you go by often, so its ornamental strengths are fully appreciated.

Tom Ward
Co-director of Living Collections
The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
Jamaica Plain, MA

Name: Fothergilla gardenii ‘Harold Epstein’

Common name: ‘Harold Epstein’ dwarf fothergilla

Hardiness: Zone 6

Mature height: 12 inches to 15 inches

Mature spread: 2 feet or more over five or more years

Classification: Low-growing, dense, mounding, dwarf shrub

Landscape use: Groundcoverlike shrub; in rock gardens or perennial borders; as a niche planting

Ornamental characteristics: Oval, 1- to 2-1/2-inch-long by 1-inch-wide leaves; dark green foliage in summer turning yellow to vibrant orange-red in fall; white, fragrant, 1-1/2-inch-long, bottlebrushlike flowers in late April to early May; delicate appearance