May 27, 2020

In Pursuit of the Elusive Forsythia

Forsythia in bloom in 2013

Janine Pineo Photo | Forsythia in bloom in 2013

• By Janine Pineo •

Good things come to those who wait.

Especially if that wait includes a mild winter.

And if that mild winter leads to a long, cool spring, something amazing might occur.

Your forsythia might bloom. And bloom and bloom while warm weather hovers to the south.

Year after year, I’d waited. Spring after spring, I’d look for blossoms only to find a few around the bases that survived because of deep snow cover. Occasionally, a sturdier bud would emerge higher than my knee. Some years, I’d be lucky if a dozen golden flowers would unfurl on all three bushes.

Time and again, I’d read how frigid temperatures kill the buds. Every winter I’d wonder how much cold weather it would take to decimate them this year. I began to question whether they had buds before winter rolled around.

I even did some pruning of the old growth because I’d read that pruning encourages new branches, which like to bloom.

After about a decade of yearning, I had just about given up. I began to envy the owners of every blooming bush I’d drive by. Bangor was full of forsythia. I was only 20 miles away, but you might think you’d crossed into the tundra of the Arctic Circle for all the forsythia flowers I had.

About a month ago, I was poking around the front yard when I wandered by the two oldest forsythia out by the split rail fence. The pair are about 8 feet tall with graceful arches that have nothing to do with pruning and everything to do with the partial shade they get from an evergreen and a black cherry tree.

Since I had little experience knowing what a young flower bud
looked like, I decided to err on the side of caution and dismissed them as the same old thing. Oh, but how I hoped it would be different.

I kept visiting them until I could see for certain that there was definitely something yellow happening in a big way along each branch.

Then I started to fret.

What if we had a bad cold snap? Would it kill the almost-flowers? What if we had a heat wave? That would mean flowers for just a few days, maybe a week, and then, poof, they’re gone. As with all things, time would tell.

Forsythia plants are an oddity. The plant itself can thrive in cold temperatures; mine have survived many nights at 40 degrees below zero.

But the flowers never survive that kind of cold.

It turns out that it is not just low temperatures that can kill the buds. Wide fluctuations can wreak havoc as well. That better explains what likely happened to my plants. I remember many warm spells in January that could turn frigid overnight. And I’m sure those ice storms don’t help.

Forsythia, or golden bells, are about seven species in the Oleaceae, or olive, family. None of the species are North American natives; all but one are from eastern Asia, the one being from southeastern Europe. Forsythia’s cousins include lilac, jasmine, privet and, of course, olive.

The forsythia was brought out of China by Robert Fortune, an English adventurer who headed to that country after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Over the next few years, he “discovered” many of our garden staples, including bleeding heart, the pompom chrysanthemum and weigela, all of which he sent home to England.

The forsythia plant itself is named after a Scottish gardener, William Forsyth. He was accounted a colorful character and became director of the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1770. Forsyth caused a bit of an uproar when he sold a plaster recipe to the government to help heal damaged trees. The recipe, which included cow dung, soapsuds and urine, was to be put on the trees after the damaged limbs were removed. The plan was that the trees would heal and become usable lumber for the British navy. Forsyth died in 1804 before the plaster’s worth – or worthlessness – could be proved.

Instead of being known for his plaster recipe, he’s remembered for the forsythia, a better end I think.

Most forsythia varieties are hardy only to Zone 6. But there are a few that might be worth searching for if you have temperatures that register 25 below zero. Forsythia ovata ‘Ottawa’ has buds that will survive that to that temperature. The flowers of F. ‘Northern Sun’ are hardy to 30 degrees below zero. F. ‘Vermont Sun’ is extremely hardy, with a Zone 4 rating.

I have no idea what kind of forsythia I have. I bought the two oldest ones locally, and the third I got from the National Arbor Day Society.

About three weeks ago, all three forsythias started to bloom. I was ecstatic as the days progressed and they only seemed to look better. As of the middle of this week, they were still going strong, with the first signs of foliage appearing.

It has been a spectacular show, enhanced by the emergence of two other flowering bushes, rhododendron and flowering plum.

I never thought I would live to see such a sight in my yard.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in May 2002.

2014 note: I can count on one hand the number of times that the forsythia have blossomed full tilt since 2002. Would you believe once? In 2013.