Five Views of Forsythia
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.
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
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
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!