The doghobble’s claim to fame
Whenever I’m conducting a native plant identification workshop, I try to note several regional plants — one each in the fern, shrub, and tree categories that participants might utilize effectively in an ornamental setting. I usually recommend cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). Among small trees, the sweet pepperbush (Clethra acuminata) is my favorite. In the ornamental shrub category, the highland doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) is certainly attractive and manageable. It has evocative associations with regards to both its common and scientific names.
Highland doghobble, sometimes called “drooping leucothoe” or “fetterbush,” is one of the most common shrubs in the Southern mountains, especially in the Blue Ridge portions of North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. Several other closely related species, including coastal doghobble (L. axillaries) and swamp doghobble (L. racemosa), are found mostly in lowland situations. Highland doghobble flourishes in the shade in acidic soils alongside streams and on mountainsides in higher elevations. Its long arching branches often cover entire slopes in association with rosebay rhododendron and mountain laurel.
The alternate leaves of highland doghobble are evergreen and rather sharply toothed. From late April into June, bell-shaped white flowers that are almost fluorescent appear in the leaf axils (where the leaf joins the stem), usually towards the tips of the branches. These flowering clusters can be quite showy and fragrant. During autumn next year’s flower buds begin to form in the axils. As winter advances, the buds display an eye-catching dark red color.
But it’s the arching branches that are doghobble’s primary claim to fame. These often root at their tips, creating an extensive tangle that can be all but impenetrable. A black bear fleeing hunting dogs will intuitively head for a doghobble tangle situated on a steep slope, where it can easily bound through going upgrade. Pursuing dogs and hunters, however, will inevitably be severely impeded by the rooted branches and sharp leaves.
Highland doghobble is a member of the heath family, which includes rhododendrons, laurels, and numerous other plants that are mostly shrubs. (Sourwood is the only tree in the family.) The story behind the generic designation Leucothoe (leu-koth-o-e) is related by Ovid, the Roman author who lived at the time of Christ, in his Metamorphoses. Leucothoe’s father, Orachamus, was so enraged when he discovered that she had given herself to Apollo that he “buried her in a living grave and piled a heavy heap of sand on top.” The distraught Apollo could not bring her back to life, so “he sprinkled her body, and the spot where it lay, with perfumed nectar,” exclaiming “ ‘You will reach heaven none the less!’” Sure enough, her perfumed body dissolved away, “soaking the earth with sweet-scented essence. Gradually, a shrub of incense spread its roots down through the earth, and itself rose into the air, its shoots breaking through the mound.”
My wife Elizabeth and I have never purchased doghobble to use as an ornamental because our woodlands are full of it, and it would be hard to out-do that natural setting. We can, however, easily envision it as an edge plant for a walkway or around a patio or maybe as backdrop in a partially shaded area for lower-growing herbaceous plants.
Horticulture specialist Richard Bir described the shrub’s potential role as an ornamental in Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants (1992):
“The best garden leucothoes are grown for their foliage rather than flowers. Drooping leucothoe will have dark glossy foliage year round in the shade. If planted where it receives some sunlight in winter, foliage will turn bronze to burgundy following the first frost. New growth is often quite red with the selection ‘Scarletta’ probably having the reddest. A variegated selection, ‘Girard’s Rainbow,’ is becoming widely available.”