My sister Cindy was born in late March and every spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. I can still remember my mother’s voice: these are for-Cynthia she would say. My little sister would puff up with pride and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that later on she naturally gravitated towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary yellow bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.
Although I was secretly envious that a flower bloomed specifically for my sister (or at least our mother led us to believe that was so), I grew to welcome the appearance of the sunny blooms each spring. Forsythia, for me, will be forever linked to my sister Cynthia, to March and the happy return of warmer weather.
It’s not the best choice for a martini
It may not taste good in a tapenade either, but forsythia is nonetheless a part of the olive (Oleaceae) family. Together with other showy members of the same family (most notably lilac, jasmine, privet and osmanthus), it is cultivated primarily for its beautiful and fragrant flowers. The genus is pretty small – just 7 species of mainly deciduous shrubs from Eastern Asia with one species from southeast Europe. Of these, a number of hybrids have been produced.
It’s all about the flowers
Forysthia’s early spring flowers are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this deciduous shrub. Opening before the leaves unfurl, the abundant, bell-shaped blooms are produced in clusters of 2 to 6 on last year’s wood.
Forsythias flower on last year’s wood
Formed of four petals and joined at the base to form a tube, the flowers can range in tone from pale to deep yellow depending on the variety.
The blooms are immediately followed by dark green foliage that sometimes turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall.
Forsythia foliage follows blooms
Barring any unforeseen cold snap, forsythia flowers can last for between two to three weeks. Or if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to snap off a few branches, put them in a vase of water indoors and in a few weeks you’ll have sunny yellow blooms right smack in the middle of winter.
Forsythia blooms are easy to force indoors
Why isn’t my forsythia blooming?
This is a question I’m often asked as a garden designer. Since flowers are produced on the prior year’s growth, it’s important to prune the shrubs right after they flower. Otherwise you risk cutting off all of next spring’s blooms. Less frequently, unusually cold weather for prolonged periods of time can also negatively affect blooms for the coming season.
If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll trim off next year’s flowers
One drawback to some of the larger varieties is that forsythia can get large and unruly pretty quickly. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive with the pruning shears at the appropriate time. (I hack mine down by a third every year after bloom.) They’ll quickly push out new growth the following year.
I’ll never understand, though, why some people insist on pruning these shrubs into boxwood-or lightbulb-like shapes.
Why is it called forsythia?
The genus forsythia was named after the Scottish botanist William Forsyth (1737-1804) who was superintendent of the Royal Gardens of Kensington Palace and founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.
William Forsyth (1737-1804)
What are the best cultivars to plant today?
Two native Chinese species, Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) and Greenstem forsythia (Forsythia viridissima) were the earliest species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East. Each has played a role in the development of most modern garden species. Forsythia suspensa remains a popular plant and is still widely cultivated for its size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10- high. Its characteristic weeping form makes it a great hedge plant, especially on embankments where its cascading blooms can be fully enjoyed.
But perhaps the most popular variety today is a cross between Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima called Forsythia x intermedia. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border Forsythia, the medium sized shrub has the golden yellow flowers most commonly associated with the plant and an upright habit (although as it matures it takes on more of an arching form.) Many hybrids have been selected from this cross including dwarf and compact forms.
Forsythia x intermedia
Save the larger, deep-yellow cultivars like ‘Beatrix Farrand’ for hedges where the plants can grow unimpeded to 8- to 10- feet or more and plant the smaller, more compact varieties close to the house or in the flower border. Great cultivars like Golden Peep (Forsythia x intermedia ‘Courdijau’) and Goldilocks (Forsythia ‘Courtacour’) are dwarf varieties that grow to 24 to 36 inches tall and wide. Or try the slightly smaller Show Off brand Sugar Baby.
I’ve had experience with Gold Tide (Forsythia ‘Courtasol’), which is also considered a dwarf, but likes to be wider than tall, so beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.
Forsythia likes to put down roots
Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not as desirable in a garden. Most springs, I mercilessly chop off these offspring from the parent plant to keep things under control.
Plant forsythia in full sun to part shade. To produce blooms, the shrub needs a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day, with the most flowers being produced in full sun. Like most plants, forsythia performs best in well-drained soil.