Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Forsythia

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

There are many signs of spring, but one that tells me spring is finally really coming, with no turning back is when the Forsythia are in bloom. If like me, you are itching for a little springtime, you can cut a few branches of Forsythia this time of year and bring them indoors.

Placed in water in a vase and warm in your home, the bright yellow blooms should open within a few days. With a little time and luck, your branches will develop roots and may be carefully transplanted to soil to propagate Forsythia.

There are several species of Forsythia, all native to Asia except for Forsythia europaea, native to southeastern Europe. Common to all species is that flowers develop and bloom before the foliage does. Bright yellow, four-petaled flowers emerge in early spring, followed by nondescript green foliage. Fruits are capsules containing winged seeds. Traditional Chinese medicine uses the fruits as a source of medicine to treat fever, inflammation, and infection.

The Forsythia grown for landscape use are commonly the Chinese species Forsythia suspensa or hybrids written Forsythia x intermedia (F. suspensa F. viridissima) or Forsythia x varibilis (F. ovata F. suspensa) which are generated from crosses of Asian Forsythia species. There are numerous Forsythia cultivars available, some as tall as ten feet, others dwarfs barely reaching four feet tall.

Members of the genus Forsythia belong to the Oleaceae family, or olive family. Original efforts to classify these plants placed them in the genus Syringa, the lilacs. It became obvious that these plants were very different than the lilacs, and Danish botanist Martin Vahl suggested the name Forsythia. The genus was named for the Scottish botanist William Forsyth who was a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society in the eighteenth century.

Depending on whom you talk to and what your personal preferences are, you may think Vahl thought highly of Forsyth, or you may think Vahl's intentions were less than noble. According to historians, Vahl intended his naming of Forsythia to be in honor of Mr. Forsyth.

Personally, I agree. I find the cheery yellow flowers of Forsythia to be a welcome respite after the cold dreary days of winter. Plus to me they are the starting pistol that signifies spring has sprung. But I know there are people out there like my husband who think Forsythia should be banned from the landscape.

Two common complaints I've heard about Forsythia is that they only have a brief period of beauty in the early spring (if flowers develop and are not killed by freezing temperatures) followed by months of "boring" green foliage, plus they are overused in the landscape. In defense of Forsythia, there are some remedies for these very valid complaints.

When there is snow cover, is not uncommon for cultivars sensitive to frigid temperatures to develop flowers only where snow provided insulation and protection. Any branch tips left exposed to the wind and cold do not develop flowers, as the buds are killed by extended freezing temperatures. This leads to an uneven looking flower display in the spring.

As with any landscape planting, do your homework and pick the right plant for the right place. Forsythia flower best in full sun, and if flower loss to freezing temperatures is an issue, choose one of the cultivars specifically developed to tolerate colder temperatures, such as 'Meadowlark', 'Northern Gold', or 'Northern Sun'.

Flower production can be maximized by working with the growth habit of Forsythia, not against it. They naturally grow with arching branches in a very irregular, rounded shape. Trying to force these shrubs to behave by shearing them into formal hedges removes a good percentage of the flower producing branches and destroys much of the flowering potential.

As with most spring flowering shrubs and trees, Forsythia develop the next year's flower buds during the summer following flowering. If you prune during the summer, you risk removing the flower buds for next spring.

The proper time to prune Forsythia is immediately after flowering, removing the oldest thickest branches which allows light into the center of the shrub and makes room for new shoots. General shrub pruning guides suggest removing only about one quarter to one third of the total number of branches at one time.

If you have a particularly neglected and unkempt Forsythia that no longer flowers, consider a renewal pruning this time of year. Renewal pruning is a gentle way of saying remove all branches, leaving only three to four inch stubs at ground level. While it sounds cruel, new shoots will emerge quickly, and flowering should resume the following year.

In my opinion, overuse in the landscape is largely a planning issue. Too often we look at landscapes in freeze-frame, not considering what a given scene will look like at various points in the year. A mass planting of Forsythia will no doubt attract attention, but why not plant additional plants to catch people's eyes at other times?

Flower hardiness aside, Forsythia are exceedingly durable plants. University of Illinois horticulture professor Gary Kling has noted that mature Forsythia have survived applications of non-selective herbicide glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup®) without flinching. This resilient nature may be one factor contributing to some people's perception of "overuse" in public areas like parking lots and medians. Considering the often high cost of installing and maintaining public landscapes, choosing tough plants seems logical, although it can get monotonous.

Despite some perceived drawbacks, I think Forsythia have a place in the landscape, if for nothing else than a dose of color during a time of year that is depressingly dreary. While I would not suggest making Forsythia the only thing you plant in your landscape, a specimen or two would brighten up your early spring landscape. Now if I can only find a variety to sneak into my yard before my husband notices.....

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