2010-04-10 / Columnists

Hardy Forsythia Bushes Like To Grow in Sun or Partial Shade

Nature Notes
By Patricia Martin

Spring has come very early this year. By the end of March, the snow and ice were gone, the boats had started traveling in the Straits, and the early crocuses and snowdrops had come and gone. Some of the migrating shore birds have begun to pass through, and the hawk migration, which usually starts near the end of April, has already begun. I saw a dozen or more hawks (I think they were broad-wings) kettling over Mackinac Friday, April 2. The temperatures have been well above average and the precipitation well below. Folks on the Island were biking by St. Patrick’s Day, and snowmobiles are stranded all over Mackinac. Most people have been anticipating one more big snowstorm, as we usually get one near St. Patrick’s Day or Easter, but right now, it doesn’t look like one is coming. If it’s this warm now, what is the summer going to be like?

Easter morning, while getting ready for church, I looked out the window and I noticed that one branch of my forsythia had actually bloomed. The branch is one that is resting against the white paint of my house on the south side. Because of the warmth of the reflected light and the protection from the wind, this branch opened earlier than any of the others. Usually on Mackinac, forsythia doesn’t bloom until May, so it’s about a month early.

Early spring brings blooming forsythia bush. Early spring brings blooming forsythia bush. For those of you not familiar with forsythia, also known as golden bells (Forsythia sp.), this shrub usually grows four to nine feet high with golden, four-lobed, bell-shaped flowers, which bloom in the spring before they send out their leaves. The lovely, bright yellow blossoms cascade along curving branches, which reach up or arch toward the ground. The narrow oval-shaped leaves appear as the flowers begin to recede. In the fall, the leaves turn a yellow-green color before falling off, but it is the spring flowers for which they’re planted.

Forsythia was named for an English botanist by the name of William Forsyth (1737-1804), but the plants originally came from Asia and Eurasia. These shrubs are in the family Oleaceae, the olive family, a family that includes the ash trees and one of Mackinac’s favorite shrubs, the lilac.

Another reason for the popularity of the forsythia is the ease with which they grow. In some of the literature, they’re considered an “almost indestructible shrub.” They generally grow in zones five to eight, so we are about as far north as you can grow them, although further north the shrubs may grow but the blooming may be questionable owing to cold killing the flowering buds. These plants like to be planted in well drained soils with a pH 6-8 and in either full sun or partial shade. Since Mackinac has all of these properties, these plants do well here.

There are a number of species, hybrids, and varieties of forsythia to use in different locations. One of the most common is Forsythia x intermedia. This is a hybrid that was developed in Germany, by crossing two Asian species. Tall growing varieties of this hybrid spread naturally to up to 12 feet across. This plant is good as bank holder, for erosion control, and also makes a good boarder or hedge. They may be sheared for a hedge or espalier. The hardiest variety is one known as “Arnold Giant.” “Lynwood” is an Irish variety that probably has the best flowers. “Nana” grows five to eight feet tall and is a slow-growing variety, which layers easily. Layering occurs when a branch bends down and grows roots where it touches the ground, in effect starting a new plant vegetatively. The variety Forsythia x intermedia “Arnold Dwarf” grows to only three feet tall and spreads to about five feet across, and while it doesn’t flower as well as the “Lynwood,” it layers easily and makes a great ground cover for slopes of banks.

If you need to prune or thin your forsythia, it needs to be done immediately after it blooms, just like the lilac and for the same reason: The flowers for the following year are formed the summer before it blooms. Only branches that are at least a year old will produce flowers, and the best are born on two- or three-year-old branches. If your shrub is one to three years old, do not trim. If it’s an older bush, remove the oldest, tired-looking branches at the ground level. You may shorten other older branches back to a young side branch. Don’t cut vigorous young canes that have not flowered, for they are preparing to produce in the next year or so. If your forsythia has layered and you want to remove or transplant some of the newly rooted branches, spring is the time to do this. It’s a common way for these plants to reproduce, as many of the garden hybrids of forsythia are sterile and do not reproduce by seed.

I will give a couple of examples of the hardiness of this plant. One spring, painters were working on my house and they tied back the forsythia to get it away from the house. They also tarped it to keep the paint and paint chips off it. It happened to be a rainy spring and the shrub remained tied up and tarped over for more than a month. When the covering was removed, the plant quickly came back, sending up dozens of new shoots from the base. Another example of its toughness occurred during the winter of 1995-96, when we had subzero temperatures for more than six weeks and all of the Great Lakes froze across. Many plants died that winter, and I thought that my forsythia might be one of them. It is true that all of the branches died back to about one foot above the ground, basically the snow line, but come spring, shoots sprouted up all over the place. I had no flowers that year, but the plant survived and now it’s more than 30 years old.

One of the things that I like best about forsythia is that you can force cut branches to bloom indoors. I particularly like to have the branches blooming for Easter and then I decorate them with painted, brown eggs, which members of my family have been painting or collecting for more than 50 years. Generally speaking, if you cut forsythia branches at the end of January, it will take about four weeks in water in the house to bloom. This year I didn’t get around to cutting my branches until about two and a half weeks before Easter, but because of the warm weather we’ve had this past March, it only took about a week and a half for them to bloom. There are other branches that can be forced indoors during the winter, including crabapple, spirea, and pussy willow.

Signs of spring are all around us. With the plants coming early, I’m afraid that we may get a cold snap and damage the blossoms of the early fruit and flowering shrubs. With forsythia starting a month early, I wonder what will happen to the lilacs. Will we have them for the festival this year, or will they have passed? It’s hard to say, and with nature, we never know.

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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