Fetterbush is a lovely evergreen shrub, indigenous to the United States. This plant offers beautiful evergreen foliage in a variety of shades as well as a great floral display of fragrant white flowers.
What is a Fetterbush Plant?
Fetterbush plant is a broad-leaf evergreen shrub native to the southeast of the United States of America. Wild forms of this plant are naturally distributed from Virginia to Georgia and Alabama, where they may be found growing in woods along streams and on slopes.
This plant grows 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m) in height and generally is wider than it is tall. Fetterbush has graceful, drooping branches and grows from a horizontal underground rhizome. If allowed, the plant will spread by suckering. (1)
The alternately arranged leaves are leathery and have finely toothed margins. Fetterbush leaves are narrow to broadly ovate (egg-shaped) and measure about 1 to 6 inches (3 to 15 cm) in length and roughly ½ to 2 inches (1 to 6 cm) wide. (1)
Fruits appear from September to October but are not an ornamental feature of this plant. These plants are attractive to pollinators such as bees and butterflies but have the benefit of being unpalatable to deer due to their toxic foliage.
Leucothoe fontanesiana, from the Ericaceae family, has several common names, including fetterbush, drooping fetterbush, mountain dog-laurel, mountain doghobble, drooping leucothoe, and switch-ivy.
Many plants of the genus Leucothoe, Lyonia, and Pieris are commonly referred to as fetterbushes, so be sure of the species of your plant before purchasing as their appearances and requirements may differ.
It is important to note that L. fontanesiana is known to be highly toxic if ingested. The leaves and flowers of these plants contain toxins that may result in severe symptoms and even death in some cases if eaten.
Fetterbush is a showy shrub that flowers from April to June with a peak in May. The petals are fused to form hanging urn-shaped flowers that are white in color and borne on 1 to 4 inches (2 to 10 cm) long axillary racemes.
The inflorescences are positioned along the stems and hold 17 to 80 flowers each. The flowers themselves are just 1/5 inch (6 mm) in length and fragrantly scented.
There are a number of cultivated varieties of Leucothoe fontanesiana available in the horticultural trade. These plants generally do not reach the maximum potential size of wild type specimens and make for very attractive and manageable garden plants.
Some of the more popular cultivars are listed and described below:
‘Mary Elizabeth’ is a slow-growing and compact form with fine leaves.
‘Scarletta’ is well-known for its deep scarlet-colored new foliage. Mature leaves become shiny green in summer and then bronze to purple in the fall and winter, depending on how much sun they receive.
‘Scarletta’ is a compact variety that grows to about 5ft (1.5 m) tall and 5ft (1.5 m) wide.
‘Girard’s Rainbow’ grows to about 3ft (0.9 m) tall and 4ft (1.2 m) wide. This cultivar is famed for its multitude of leaf colors, from various shades of green to reds, coppers, pinks, and white.
‘Silver run’ is a variegated cultivar that is harder than Girard’s rainbow but with more limited coloration.
‘Nana’, meaning small, grows to a maximum of around 3 ft in height and 6 ft in width. This cultivated variety has a dense growth form and dark green foliage which turns red to bronze or purple in winter.
How to Grow a Fetterbush
The fetterbush has a long history in the horticultural world with the first record of a Leucothoe in a collection being from the year 1789. (1)
This slow-growing plant requires acidic soil and does well in moist, cool areas. This plant does not enjoy windy and drought conditions and should therefore be sheltered and kept moist for best results.
Fetterbush does best in partial shade. Sufficient direct sunlight stimulates the fantastic array of leaf colors this plant is so well known for, although, sunburn may be an issue if exposed for too long.
Fetterbush can be grown from seed or root cuttings, treated with a hormone powder. This plant does best in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 6 and RHS hardiness zone h6.
As stated, acidic soils with a pH of less than 6 are required for your fetterbush to thrive. If you don’t live in an area with naturally acidic soils, it may be necessary to lower the pH of the substrate your fetterbush will be planted in.
Products such as acidifying fertilizers can be used for this purpose, provided specific instructions on dosage and application are followed.
Care and Maintenance
While fetterbush is generally a low maintenance plant, it does require good air circulation and enough sunlight, particularly in humid environments, to prevent leaf spot.
Too much sunlight, however, may result in sunburn of the leaves. Therefore, planting in an appropriate location is important to prevent unnecessary treatments and maintenance further down the line.
This plant has average watering requirements and does prefer a moist substrate. It is especially important to maintain a moist growing medium where plants are grown in warmer climates or full sun locations.
Pruning is not a necessity, although these plants are comfortably able to withstand pruning down to around 1 ½ foot (45 cm), which may serve to rejuvenate the specimen.
Pruning may also be useful to create a more compact and tidy look for plants grown in deep shade.
Landscaping with Fetterbush
The low growth form of fetterbush makes it an ideal ground-cover and a great plant for hiding the base and stems of taller plants and shrubs behind it.
It makes an ideal border plant and is great in a nature garden where it will provide shelter and attract a variety of wildlife, while not being attractive to deer and other browsers.
Although not palatable, the poisonous nature of the plant should be considered when planting this species in areas frequented by animals or young children.
More colorful varieties such as Girard’s Rainbow make fine specimen plants.
For more bushes to grow, check our list of common bushes.
(1) Judd, W. S., Kron, K. A., Melvin, N. C. & Waselkov, K. A Taxonomic Revision of Leucothoe (Ericaceae; Tribe Gaultherieae) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257776373_A_taxonomic_revision_of_Leucothoe_Ericaceae_Tribe_Gaultherieae