GREEN THOUGHTS: A “plastic” plant with real history

ALTHOUGH WE LOVE FORSYTHIA, the shrub with the colorful yellow flowers which fade into seasonal green leaves, many gardeners don’t consider it a very interesting plant. However, even forsythia’s history contains many interesting quirks and curiosities.

First, there are actually several species of forsythia. Many plants are hybrids, technically called Forsythia x intermedia, but there is also weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) and greenstem forsythia (Forsythia viridissima), to name just two.

With hundreds of named varieties that look similar, and with much confusion as to what is what in the nursery trade, many folks just give up and call it all forsythia. That’s okay, except when it comes to hardiness.

Some gardeners lament that cold winter temperatures often kill the flower buds of forsythia, leaving only a few straggling blooms below the former snowline, and they therefore give up on the plant. Not so fast! There are many new types with better cold hardiness, including ‘Happy Centennial,’ ‘Meadowlark’ and ‘Northern Gold.’ A particularly hardy type is ‘New Hampshire Gold,’ which plantsman Michael Dirr claims “flowered to the tops of the stems” after a winter with -33F temperatures.

So don’t just buy any old forsythia from your nursery; request a named, flower bud hardytype. Although not glamorous after flowering, forsythia has several good characteristics: it is drought tolerant, pest free and grows in many soil types. And grow it does, with most types forming large mounds. It will spread and also root where the branches touch the ground, making it useful for banks, windbreaks and privacy fences.

Pruning must be done annually if it is to be kept in check, but hacking in late summer will remove the wood which produces the flowers. Hence, prune just after blooming or early enough so that some new shoots will appear before season’s end.

Many folks shape it into green hockey pucks (disk-shaped), nosecones (pyramids), or meatballs (globes), but I prefer a more natural look. I’ve even seen topiary, or miniature tree-shaped forsythias, which are quite unique. When a plant is this adaptable to pruning, we call it “plastic”–able to be shaped into any form, and live to tell about it.

Why do we call this plant forsythia? It is named for an eighteenth-century British horticulturist, William Forsyth. He specialized in growing forest and fruit trees, and was interested in studying their diseases. William is famous for creating a “plaster” to apply to tree trunks as a curative, the formula of which he initially guarded until he received a government grant. When divulged, the secret ingredients included cow dung, urine, wood ash, sand and powdered lime. One wonders as to the effectiveness of this home remedy, but perhaps he was onto something.

In William’s honor, a horticulturist-friend of mine argues that we should not cry out “For-SITH-ee-ah” when we spot the shrub, but “For-SYTHE-ee-ah.” The biggest tragedy is that William never saw his namesake: he died in 1804, and the plant didn’t reach England until the 1840s.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

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