Forsythia: Good as gold

Maia C/Flickr

Maia C/Flickr

No announcement that spring is at hand is more emphatic than the gaudy blossoms of forsythia, soon to be blaring from every yard and highway margin.

Happily, it is a plant that can cope with the last unwelcome blasts of wintry weather, including surprise snow storms. Nothing stops forsythia -- its flower buds are hardy to 15 degrees below zero. There’s good reason why this common shrub has never fallen out of favor in the 170 years since it was introduced to Western gardens.

Forsythia is named for William Forsyth, a Scot who served as gardener to King George III around the time of the American Revolution. He was among the founders of the Horticultural Society of London, which eventually morphed into the Royal Horticultural Society.

Another Scot, plant hunter Robert Fortune, found forsythia in China, where six of the seven species originate. On its introduction to Europe in 1833, forsythia had been classified as a Syringa, the genus including lilac. But the classifiers soon realized their mistake, and came up with the new name to honor the king’s gardener, who also won fame and fortune for his work on the diseases of economically important fruit and forest trees.

Most of the plants we know are Forsythia x intermedia, a cross between the first two species dragged from China to Britain, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. Cultivars of this hardy garden favorite exist — ‘Lynwood Gold’ and ‘Spring Glory’ have larger flowers than the species — but shrub shoppers ordinarily buy the common kind, which is perfectly satisfactory.

Forsythia’s popularity is related to its undemanding nature. It is extremely hardy and long-lived, surviving neglect, drought and a wide variety of soils. It blooms reliably in full sun or light shade, and rarely suffers from pests or diseases.

Branches are easily forced into bloom weeks before the show commences outdoors — just bring them inside, put them in water and wait. You can usually begin to do this in February, when the unfolding blossoms of long, straight forsythia “whips” will perk up your interiors with a jolt of pure, sunshine yellow.

I think of forsythia as my first big cut flower opportunity of the season. These vigorous shrubs should be pruned back hard immediately after flowering to keep them in bounds. I opt instead to cut lots of branches in flower and give them away as giant spring bouquets rather than waiting until the blossoms are spent and withered.

cgulyas2002/Flickr

cgulyas2002/Flickr

Pruning is the only thing you really need to do to or for forsythia, so don’t be shy. Left to its own devices, a single bush will grow huge (8 to 10 feet) and congested, and will begin to form an impenetrable thicket. Arching branches root when they touch the ground, and these daughter plants can either be grubbed out or severed from the motherlode and moved around the yard. Propagation doesn’t get any easier than this.

When pruning, lop out a few of the oldest, thickest stems at the base, then head back other main branches. Aim to remove about 25 percent of the shrub at a clip, working to keep the center of the shrub open to light and aiming for a graceful, arching shape.

Two don’ts: Don’t shear these shrubs into pat, round “muffins” or they will lose their natural beauty. And don’t wait until summer to wield the shears; since these plants bloom on wood formed the previous season, you will remove next season’s flowers if you wait too late. July is definitely too late.

The downside of forsythia is that once its spring extravaganza has concluded, the shrub becomes a solid mass of undistinguished green that a gardening friend of mine describes as “spitefully boring.” Still, I wouldn’t want to be without at least one shrub to give me that early season blast of glorious yellow.

Besides, forsythia is good for removing artistic blocks, and is therefore a plant no writer should lack. I recently unearthed a bit of floral witchcraft involving this plant, and pass this remedy on for anyone in need. Here goes:

Gather the individual flowers in a silver bowl. Fondle the little blossoms and feel your creative juices flow. Gaze into the bowl, looking for fresh inspiration. Raise the bowl over your head and say “Hail to the sun!” Do this a few times, and you will probably be giggling.

I personally think this rite should be performed outdoors, where you might finally raise the bowl overhead and dump it, bathing yourself in a shower of yellow petals. If that doesn’t make you laugh out loud and give you a few good ideas, you’re in deeper trouble than you knew.