In the summer of 2019, my mom connected with the family of her birth father, Bill Fothergill. We learned that he was a fun-loving man with fair, British skin and dark, brown eyes. He had met my mom’s birth mom in New York City after college. It’s fun to imagine that my mom’s newfound origin story might somehow be tied to my irrational love for the city.
After learning about her birth family, I moved into a new house and began obsessively researching plants to fill the property. One shrub that I came across was Witch Alder, aka Fothergillia. I love the look of this shrub. The leaves are dark, shiny, and irregular. The flowers come before the leaves, starting as chartreuse buds (my favorite color) then blooming into clouds of white. In the fall the leaves turn a rich red-orange.
I feel a special connection to this plant because of my heritage. I don’t know if we are related to Dr. John Fothergill, the English plant collector who brought the plant back to England, but it seems plausible enough. Because of the connection and a general interest in the plant, I ordered two Fothergillia gardenii (dwarf witch alder) the second fall we lived in the house. I’ve watched them grow for the past year, one doing much better than the other, and started to recognize it in other settings beyond my garden.
This past July, while we were in Tennessee, I saw the familiar leaves and branches of Fothergillia. The shrubs were beautiful, large, and well-established. They were also putting out suckers all around. I told my sister about them and we talked about snagging some before we left. The last night of the trip, before dessert, we walked over to the flower beds and unceremoniously yanked as many suckers out of the ground as possible. We went back to the cabin, wrapped them in moist paper towels, and put them in plastic bags for the journey home.
I felt a little like Dr. John Fothergill, collecting specimens for my personal collection. I potted them, put them in a place with morning sun, and essentially forgot about them for the next few months.
Three of them survived and I planted them in the easement along our property where I hope they will thrive and spread for many years. I can’t wait to see the blooms in the spring after establishing their roots all winter and I hope to eventually have suckers to propagate and spread.
As my mom has learned about her birth families I have felt more drawn to the maternal, Italian heritage we discovered early on: the wine, the pasta, the crowded plazas. This reflection has helped me embrace my English heritage: gardening, walking, observing, and my growing collection of information, plants, and ideas.