(Updated March 2019)
My sister Cindy was born in late March. And each spring, when the forsythias bloomed, we would celebrate 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 before she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I’ll never forget the canary carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.
Although I was secretly jealous that a flower bloomed especially for my sister, I grew to welcome the arrival of the sunny blooms. In my mind, forsythia will be forever tied to my sister, to March and the happy return of warm weather.
It’s not the best choice for a martini
It won’t taste good in tapenade either, but forsythia nevertheless belongs to the olive family Oleaceae. Along with other showy members like lilac and jasmine, it is grown primarily for its bright, fragrant flowers. There are about 11 species, most of which are native to eastern Asia with one hailing from southeastern Europe.
It’s all about the flowers
Forsythia’s early spring blossoms are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this multi-branched shrub. Developing before the leaves, the yellow flowers are produced in clusters on last year’s wood.
Forsythias flower on last year’s wood
Each flower is composed of four petals. They range in color from pale to deep yellow.
After they fade, the blooms are followed by bright green foliage. Depending on the variety, the leaves turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall.
Forsythia foliage follows blooms
Barring a cold snap, forsythia flowers will last for between two to three weeks. But 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?
As a garden designer, I am often asked this question. The answer usually lies in when the shrub was pruned. Since buds are produced on the prior year’s growth, it’s important to prune forsythias right after they flower. Otherwise you risk cutting off most of next spring’s blooms. Less frequently, prolonged periods of unusually cold weather can negatively affect flowering for the coming season.
If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll cut off next year’s blooms
Forsythias are fast-growing. When left untended, they easily become leggy. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine back by a third every spring right after flowering.) The shrubs will quickly bounce back and push out new growth the following year.
What are the best varieties available today?
Most of today’s modern varieties are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. These were the first species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East.
Forsythia suspensa, commonly called Weeping forsythia, is a popular plant all on its own and is still widely grown for its large size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10-feet. Its characteristic weeping habit makes it an excellent hedging plant. It also looks great on a slope or hanging over a wall where its drooping blooms can be fully appreciated.
That being said, it is the hybrid of Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima, Forsythia x intermedia, that is behind many of the most popular cultivars today. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border forsythia, the medium-sized, upright shrub has the bright yellow flowers most commonly associated with the species. The cross has also produced many new varieties, including a number of lower-maintenance, more compact forms.
If you’re looking to create a hedge, I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow F. x intermedia cultivars like Arnold Giant, Lynwood Gold, Karl Sax and Spectabilis. They’ll happily grow unimpeded to 8- to 10-feet or more. The dwarf varieties, Arnold Dwarf and Gold Tide are two popular forms that grow to just 3 feet and can be used as groundcovers. However in my experience, Gold Tide likes to be wider than tall. So beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.
Golden Peep and Goldilocks are small and have compact branching. They look great close up to the house or in the flower border. They also make great container plants. The slightly larger Sunrise is a great choice if you’re looking for fall leaf color.
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 to keep things under control.
Best blooms in full sun
For the best blooms, plant Forsythia x intermedia varieties in full sun to part shade. The shrubs need a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day to flower. Like most plants, forsythias perform best in well-drained soil.