My sister Cindy was born in late March and each spring, we welcomed the first blooms of our neighborhood forsythias with a family-coined phrase. My mother would say: these are for-Cynthia. My little sister would puff up with pride and it wasn’t long after that she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I will never forget the canary-toned bedroom carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.
Although I was secretly envious that a flower bloomed specifically for my sister (or so our mother led us to believe), 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 nonetheless belongs to the olive (Oleaceae) family. Together with other showy members (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 and 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 bell-shaped blooms are produced in clusters on last year’s wood.
Forsythias flower on last year’s wood
Composed of four petals joined at the base to form a tube, the flowers 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 are built to last for between two to three weeks. Or if you can’t wait until spring, it’s easy to force them indoors.
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 removing 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 overgrown fairly quick. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine down by a third every year right after bloom.) The shrubs will quickly push out new growth the following year.
What are the best varieties on the market 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 varieties.
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-feet tall. Its characteristic weeping form makes it a great hedge plant, especially on hillsides where the cascading blooms can be fully appreciated.
But perhaps the most popular variety today is a cross between the two Chinese species 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 created from this cross including a number of more manageable dwarf and compact forms.
Forsythia x intermedia
I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow cultivars like Beatrix Farrand, Northern Gold or Karl Sax for hedges where the plants can grow unimpeded to 8- to 10- feet or more. And save the smaller, more compact varieties for close up to the house or in the flower border. Great cultivars like Golden Peep and Goldilocks are dwarf varieties that grow to just 24 to 36 inches tall and wide. Or try the slightly larger Sunrise if you’re looking for great fall color.
In my experience, Gold Tide, which is also considered a dwarf, 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 so desirable in a garden. Most springs, I chop off these offspring from the parent plant to keep things under control.
Best blooms in full sun
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.