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Five Views of Forsythia

February 25, 2012

This post is written in response to a challenge from Stacy at Microcosm to take something familiar in the garden that tends “to happen pretty much every year” and use it as a window into the garden’s “endless variety and wonder.” I have chosen Forsythia as my subject. Forsythia inflorescence (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)

View 1 – The Boring Forsythia

I will admit that this is the way I usually think of Forsythia – as a boring, somewhat unkempt shrub. I spend much of the year wondering why I have it taking up space in my garden. It is telling that I have no photos of this plant’s foliage, despite the fact that it grows in both my gardens and is a dominating presence in the front yard of my property in Maine. Although I often see my own forsythia as large and overgrown, I don’t think the shrub is improved by being pruned, as it often is, into severe boxes (typically as part of a hedge).

View 2 – The Joyful Forsythia

Forsythia blooming in April in Gettysburg, PA (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) My view of forsythia changes dramatically in mid-late winter. By this point in the season, even a winter lover can feel starved for color. The white of snow is getting old – both in the sense that I have grown tired of it and in the sense that aging piles of snow in parking lots and along the side of the road have taken on dingy shades of gray and brown. Into this drab and colorless world comes a burst of joy: the sunshine yellow of forsythia, first as vases of forced branches in the house and then as large swaths of vibrant color in the garden. This is the point where I remember why I have this shrub taking up space in my garden, why, in fact, I cannot possibly live without it!

View 3 – The Flowers-First Forsythia

Part of the joyful drama of forsythia’s bloom is that the flowers open before any leaves appear on the plant. Seemingly overnight, it goes from being an unkempt bunch of twigs to being a mass of flowers; and those flowers shout, “spring!” Many spring-blooming shrubs and trees get flowers first, before foliage appears. Forsythia isn’t even the first of these plants to bloom; the more subtle flowers of Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) bloom several weeks earlier. But where Hamamelis blooms provide a welcome promise that spring will come, forsythia blooms announce spring’s arrival. In the enchanting spring of southern Pennsylvania, the appearance of forsythia flowers on bare branches is followed in short order by those of magnolia, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

But why do these plants that give me such joy each spring get flowers before foliage? Brian Capon, in Botany for Gardeners (Timber Press, 2010) tells us that these plants actually form their flower buds before their period of winter dormancy; the dormant buds are then cued to develop and bloom by warmer temperatures and longer hours of daylight in spring. Capon also notes that this flower-first strategy has reproductive advantages for the plants by “making the flowers more visible to pollinating insects and getting the reproductive process off to an early start.” (p. 161)

View 4 – The Forsythia Flower

Detail - Forsythia flower (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) The joyful exuberance of forsythia in bloom arises not only from the color of its flowers but from the way they grow in dense masses on the stem. As is true of many plants that bloom in inflorescences (many flowers on a single stem), our focus when we see a forsythia in bloom is on the inflorescence and not on the individual flower. When I did stop to look closely at the individual flower, I realized that it has four petals, a relatively rare phenomenon in my garden, where five-petaled flowers or flower parts in multiples of three seem to be more common. A little research told me that forsythia’s four petals are a sign that it is a dicot, one of the two major classes of flowering plants (the other being the monocots). The division between monocots and dicots was established by 18th century botanists, and it refers to the way the plants grow from seed. “Dicot” is short for dicotyledon and indicates that these plants begin growth with two cotyledons or seed leaves (compared with one for the monocotyledons). Dicots and monocots have a number of other contrasting characteristics, including leaf venation, type of root growth, and number of petals (multiples of 4 or 5 for the dicots, and multiples of 3 for the monocots). Capon (Botany for Gardeners, p. 28) notes that dicots are believed to be an older plant form and monocots a more recent evolutionary development.

View 5 – The Exotic Forsythia

Although I usually think of  forsythia as a somewhat boring, commonplace shrub that grows throughout the northeast United States, it is in fact an exotic plant. Forsythia was one of many plants native to China that were brought back to England in the 1840s by the plant collector, Robert Fortune. Fortune’s story is compellingly told by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin in Flower Hunters (Oxford University Press, 2008), where they explain that he travelled to China to find botanical treasures shortly after the Treaty of Nanking opened China to European visitors. Fortune was not a plant hunter who went out into the wilds and brought back hitherto undiscovered species. His genius was in learning how to be accepted by the Chinese so that he could buy plants from Chinese nurseries and in learning how to use recently invented “Wardian cases” to successfully transport live plants for long distances. Fortune is credited with having introduced English gardeners to many plants that became familiar garden favorites on both sides of the Atlantic, including Viburnums, Weigelias, Wisterias, Peonies, Azaleas and Rhododendrons, Chrysanthemums, Hostas, and – of course – Forsythias. (He is also credited with introducing black tea cultivation to India, so I owe him on two counts.) Many plant species (e.g., Euonymus fortunei, Hosta fortunei, Mahonia fortunei) are named for Robert Fortune. Although his work made it possible for me to enjoy Forsythia blooms every spring, this plant was not named for him but for William Forsyth, the gardener to King George III.

All of which just goes to show that looking closely at a commonplace plant can open up a whole world!

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2012 6:43 pm

    I think forsythia is one of those plants like hostas that you love when you first start gardening, then hate when you become a little more sophisticated, and then love again when you start to let go a little. I have one that I keep pruned to a loosely oblong shape, and I look forward to it every year.

    • February 26, 2012 4:42 pm

      Carolyn, I have definitely been an inconstant lover of Forsythia — but not so much in loving it and hating it at different points in my gardening development as in loving it and disliking it at different points in the gardening year. When I re-landscape the front of my house, I need to find a place for it where it can shine and bring pleasure in April and blend unobtrusively into the background afterward.

  2. February 25, 2012 9:55 pm

    Jean, thank you so much for taking part in the challenge, and in such an interesting way! I must confess re: #1, the boring forsythia, that I don’t even know what forsythia leaves look like… I’ve never been lucky enough to have one growing in my own garden, and as soon as they’re out of bloom in someone else’s, I forget that they’re there altogether. When they ARE blooming, though, they’re worth any amount of dullness the rest of the year. In Ithaca, one whole hillside on the way up to campus had naturalized (or so it looked) in forsythia, and it was my favorite sight of spring every year. (Strangely, VT gardeners weren’t as into them–they went straight for lilacs.)

    Both of the books you mention sound fascinating. Janet at Planticru Notes wrote a couple of posts in November on the Scottish Plant Hunter’s Garden (http://planticrunotes.blogspot.com/2011/11/scottish-plant-hunters-garden-part-1.html) and someone mentioned the Gribbins’ book in a comment. That’s a whole new facet of gardening I’d never really thought about before.

    And may I also say how impressed I am with your forced blooms? I’m trying to force some sand cherry branches this year, and it looks like they’re going to bloom right about when the ones outside do.

    • February 26, 2012 4:47 pm

      Stacy, Thanks for providing me with an incentive to research and write this post. I bought the Capon book a while back, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. After dipping into it to do research for this post, I’m realizing that I need to read it a little bit at a time so that I can absorb the scientific information in one chapter before I go onto the next. I hadn’t heard of the Gribbin and Gribbin book until I went to the library to do research on the history of forsythia. Once I had read the chapter on Robert Fortune, though, I was hooked; and I went to the beginning to read it through cover to cover. I’ll probably do a review of it soon.

  3. February 25, 2012 11:41 pm

    I don’t have any forsythia, but our neighbors have one right next to our fence so I can enjoy seeing it every spring. It’s just sticks now, but I was thinking of clipping some of the overhanging branches to bring inside. Daffodils and forsythia remind me of sunshine, both very welcome signs of spring.
    I enjoyed your post!

    • February 26, 2012 4:48 pm

      Catherine, A borrowed-view forsythia may be the best of all possible worlds! You can enjoy it when it blooms (should be very soon for you) and ignore it the rest of the year.

  4. February 26, 2012 3:59 am

    Thank you Jean, “Flower Hunters” sounds like a must-read for me, now. I love forsythia and to me it is very exotic!
    I had only ever seen photos of it, up til 2 years ago, when my daughter and I travelled in Holland. Everywhere I saw this gorgeous butter yellow coloured brush of bushes. I imagined they were forsythia, but no-one could confirm this. Eventually I saw lots of it at a famous tulip farm…so was able to ID it for sure. Thanks, this brought bcak memories of my trip with Em.

    • February 26, 2012 5:00 pm

      Lilith, Flower Hunters is a very good book; I hope to include a review of it on my blog when I finish reading it. I gather that forsythia can be grown in some parts of Australia, since there seems to be a nursery in Victoria selling it. How nice, though, that you were able to see it in bloom during your trip with your daughter.

  5. February 26, 2012 6:40 am

    After reading your insightful post, I realised that the plant which I have been calling witch-hazel may actually be forsythia.

    • February 26, 2012 5:03 pm

      b-a-g, Witch hazel and forsythia look very similar from a distance — both with yellow flower suddenly appearing on bare branches. When the witch hazels on the college campus where I work bloom in late February, I always think, “Forsythia, already?!” before I realize what they are. When you look at them up close, however, the flowers are very different, with those on witch hazel looking like fringe. Click here for an image.

  6. February 26, 2012 11:20 am

    What an interesting look at what we usually think of as a common plant. I particularly liked the history of where it came from. It’s wondrous to me that years ago people actively went on missions to find new plants and treated them as rare wonders. Seems like today that sort of trip would only be made for minerals and gems.

    • February 26, 2012 5:13 pm

      Marguerite, Horticulturalists are still making plant-hunting trips. To read about what they’re like today, dig about halfway down your pile of books waiting to be read and pull out James Dodson’s Beautiful Madness :-).

  7. February 26, 2012 3:16 pm

    (I battle to love that colour but) I can remember how my Swiss mother-in-law enjoyed the early flowers in vases. Plant hunting history intrigues me, where did it come from, who found it, that’s why it likes that climate.

    • March 3, 2012 8:47 pm

      Diana, The forsythia I have in Maine (bottom photo) is that very strong, brassy yellow-gold color that I think is only loved by those who have been starving for color. After all those months of white, the brash, vibrant color is welcome. The forsythia in my Gettysburg garden (top two photos) is a much softer, buttery yellow that is easy to love.

  8. February 26, 2012 5:10 pm

    What a perfect choice for the challenge. Forsythia is the first bloom in Spring to appear in gardens in Montreal. It teases me when I am desperate to enjoy looking at flowers and then disappoints when the blooms disappear.

    • March 3, 2012 8:51 pm

      Allan, I know what you mean about forsythia first teasing and then disappointing. I find the forsythia in my Gettysburg garden much easier to live with because it takes center stage when it blooms in spring and then fades into a screen of foliage along the property line. I like this much better than the position of my forsythia in Maine, which is out in the open. (In both locations, these were already mature plants when I moved into the house.) The Maine forsythia will have to go when I put an addition on the house in the next couple of years; I’m hoping to move a piece of it to a back-of-the-border spot at the side of the house.

  9. February 26, 2012 5:55 pm

    What a great history behind it! I don’t have any forsythia, but I enjoy it so much in spring when the town is lit up with with these amazing sunshine-blooming shrubs. Forcing branches indoors sounds so beautiful as well.

    • March 3, 2012 8:53 pm

      Indie, I find the history of these once-exotic plants that we now take for granted fascinating. Forcing forsythia branches is one of my favorite late winter activities; they are just about foolproof and provide blooms about a month before anything is happening outdoors.

  10. February 26, 2012 9:42 pm

    Had to have forsythia. I have the large common variety that flower depending on how cold the winter is….and I have a dwarf spreading variety in the front garden….it is such a harbinger to spring for us…cheery yellows brightening up a dull landscape…wonderful post Jean

    • March 3, 2012 8:55 pm

      Donna, Do your forsythia flower more or less in colder winters? I remember one year when Gettysburg had a stretch of unusually cold (below zero) winter weather in a winter that was also very snowy. In spring, the forsythias all bloomed up to the snow line, but the parts that had been above the snow in the cold spell had suffered from winter kill.

  11. February 26, 2012 11:33 pm

    I’m quietly delighted that I already knew that forsythia buds are formed before dormancy; I think the earliest I’ve ever forced forsythias into bloom was early December, and the only reason I don’t repeat that is that the yellow doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas” to me…

    I didn’t know Fortune brought it to Europe, though. My husband and I visited the Explorer’s Garden in Pitlochry in September, and even though it rained throughout our visit to the garden it was definitely enjoyable as well as educational. (And we had the garden to ourselves, because nobody in their right mind goes on a garden walk when it’s raining hard, even for Scotland.)

    • March 3, 2012 8:58 pm

      Soren, I agree; forsythia does not scream “Christmas.” Even if you can get it to bloom then, I prefer blooms like amaryllis and cyclamen for Christmas.

      I’ve been reading more about the Scottish plant hunters; I think it would be wonderful to visit some of their gardens. (Another trip to plan!)

  12. February 27, 2012 5:28 am

    Forsythia almost defined ubiquitous in gardens here (UK) right up from the 50s, when it was sold in cheap reliable shrub collections, with berberis, cotoneaster, philadelphus, into the 2000s. Very few people would plant it now, the yellow is seen as brassy, the shrub shapeless. I’ve ripped more out than I can count. Doesn’t that seem terrible, when it makes such an effort! But it has no grace, unlike a witch-hazel and I think is perhaps a thing to see from a distance, glowing away behind stuff. Beatrix Farrand covered a whole hillside with it I think, in Dumbarton Oaks.

    A lovely post, I enjoyed it.

    • March 3, 2012 9:00 pm

      Jane, I have seen hillsides covered with blooming forsythia in early spring, and it is a glorious sight. I think forsythias can be graceful; if they are carefully pruned so that they get that wonderful “fountain” shape. But they can get pretty overgrown and shapeless if left to their own devices.

  13. February 27, 2012 8:29 am

    Around the corner from my house there is a huge grouping of mature forsythia. When it’s in bloom it’s so beautiful that I feel like stopping the car as I drive by. I have forsythia in my garden but it has years to go before it will have the fullness of the plants. It has always been one of my favorites, both for the welcome blooms in spring and for it’s fountain of green in the summer.

    • March 3, 2012 11:16 pm

      Ginny, I do think forsythias can look beautiful in summer when they are pruned to create that graceful fountain shape. Unfortunately, I’ve never succeeded in getting either of mine to look that way. :-(

  14. February 27, 2012 5:22 pm

    I found this post on “boring” forsythia fascinating! Who knew? I just pruned mine, but not into a box hedge. I remove entire canes especially those growing close to the ground attempting to reroot. I now have bouquets of forsythia all over the house! Like you, I wonder why I have this shrub in my limited space of a garden, except for that I brought it from Maine and it was one of the first shrubs I ever propagated myself – sentimental, until I see those bright Spring sprays of yellow. Though it is not native and not recommended for wildlife value, my birds seem to enjoy perching in it. I’m going to keep it. I had so much fun pruning those branches yesterday in the sun (and snow), and love being able to force anything from the garden indoors. My Cornus Mas was also supposed to offer yellow blooms as early as March, but I fear “Charlie Brown” is no more – a bareroot that never seemed to take.

    • March 4, 2012 11:54 am

      Kathy, I aspire to someday have a well-pruned forsythia that looks lovely even after it stops blooming. The plants in both my gardens were large and overgrown when I inherited them; but I haven’t really done much to improve the situation :-|

  15. February 27, 2012 5:34 pm

    Jean, I’m so glad you chose Forsythia. Some may find it boring, but I have fondness for it, as I remember it from my childhood garden. I’ve never grown one of my own though, but every time I see one (which isn’t too often around here) they always make me smile. I agree, I think their natural form is so much prettier than when they’re clipped. Their four petaled blooms often remind me of brassica flowers, and actually look quite similar to the black mustard we have in bloom at the moment!

    • March 4, 2012 11:56 am

      Clare, Those yellow flowers always make me smile when they appear in spring, too. They must be some of the most cheerful blooms around.

  16. February 27, 2012 7:41 pm

    I don’t grow Forsythia, lovely as it is, as its bloom season is too short here (only about ten days usually) to be worth the space it would take up in the garden, but I just wanted to say “well done” for not planting yours with anything pink! So many people seem to do that and it spoils the look of both plants for me.

    • March 4, 2012 11:58 am

      Lyn, I’ll have to pay attention to how long the bloom time is here. I can’t really take any credit for the forsythias in either of my gardens since they were here before I was. I do have some hot pink hyacinths that bloom at the same time as the forsythia in my Gettysburg garden, but in this case, the colors seem to enhance one another.

  17. February 28, 2012 9:36 am

    Ah Jean, all these years of gardening and still this shrub has never graced our garden. True enough I did see it as a common old thing, yet I have many plants which you could say the same thing about. Each and every Spring when I see Forsythia, I want it. Today you have rekindled these thoughts with your very interesting post. But where will it go..

    • March 4, 2012 12:01 pm

      Alistair, As I think you can tell from this post, my relationship with forsythia is profoundly ambivalent. It will be interesting to see what I do with this plant when I redo my front garden in Maine. (It may depend on what time of year it is when I am making a decision!)

  18. February 28, 2012 5:06 pm

    Great post! Forsythia is one of those plants that seeped into my consciousness and is now part of my history. The original owner of my home planted a forsythia across the drive in front of the house, and it is visible from the front windows. My memories of my third child as an infant are intertwined with that forsythia, as I spent many days rocking and nursing him near those windows. I admired the forsythia as it came into bloom and watched the birds who nested there. It is an old-fashioned friend, reliable and undemanding. I am fortunate that I have space to let it grow.

  19. Kevin permalink
    February 29, 2012 5:01 pm

    I grew up with one of thise unruly Forcythia and I think I took it for granted. It actually annoyed me that that the yellow would disappear into the green leaves. Then, a few years ago, I clipped some branches from a neighbors shrub and forced them to bloom inside. It was love! Now, I appreciate the yellow hello as I drive by the neighbor’s house and along the highways here, where Forcythia is a staple.

    • March 4, 2012 12:04 pm

      Kevin, I agree that enjoying those forced branches indoors when the world is still white (or brown and muddy!) outdoors is a special kind of love.

  20. March 1, 2012 8:57 am

    This was so interesting to read. I also enjoy forsythia blooms. I think their display is one of the first signs of spring, and the yellow is so beautiful and bright. I do like the pruned look of forsythias when they are in a row, but I prefer the cascading, free look of the branches full of blooms draping to the ground.

    • March 4, 2012 12:06 pm

      Michelle, A well-pruned forsythia can be beautiful; the severe cubes that I often see around here are not. I hope some day to have one that is pruned to that perfect, free, cascading look.

  21. March 15, 2012 11:14 am

    I transplanted my forsythia’s from a rather confined place to a new area in the garden where they can flourish with little pruning. I prefer the cascading branches from defined stems at the ground. I have them in front of some spruce trees. They look quite beautiful there.

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