Polk County’s Most Wanted — Plant: Mountain Witch-alder

Published 3:57 pm Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant, one of the southern Appalachian’s most beautiful shrubs, Mountain Witch-alder (Fothergilla major).

When in flower, Mountain Witch-alder is hard to miss. It is covered in rounded masses of flowers with white stamens (and no petals). In recent years, this distinctive species has become popular in the nursery trade. This deciduous shrub is small to medium-sized (up to three meters in height) with lobed, large-toothed and prominently veined leaves. The leaves of Mountain Witch-alder also bear a very strong resemblance to the far more abundant Witch-hazel, not surprisingly, perhaps, as both are in the same plant family. Indeed, when not in fruit or flower, it can be very easy to confuse Mountain Witch-alder for Witch-hazel. 

A plant of medium elevations, found in the Piedmont and western parts of North Carolina, Mountain Witch-alder prefers sites that are dry to dry-mesic and on the acidic side of the pH scale. Sunny, open sites suit it best. This is also a plant that responds well to fire, with prescribed burning often being utilized to help populations in the wild. The site of a blooming thicket of Witch-alder is breathtaking and hard to forget. Flowering typically takes place from late March to early May, depending on elevation.

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This species has been found in Polk County, with reports from the Green River Game Lands and Melrose Mountain; however, these records are several decades old. The continued existence of Mountain Witch-alder in Polk County seems likely, as sufficient habitat exists here and it is also known from nearby counties. This species is so spectacular and distinctive; we are hoping that residents will be able to provide us with information regarding the whereabouts of this rare and unusual species in our community.

If you feel that you have seen Mountain Witch-alder, or any other Polk County’s Most Wanted species, please contact staff at the Pacolet Area Conservancy at 828-859-5060, or e-mail comments, questions, or photos to landprotection@pacolet.org.   

All of the Polk County’s Most Wanted can be viewed on pacolet.org. Click on the “conservation” tab and scroll down and click on the “Polk County’s Most Wanted” tab. 

PAC has also created a pocket guide of Polk County’s Most Wanted that can be printed and taken in the field. The pocket guide can be accessed on PAC’s website, too.

– article written by David Campbell