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Harbinger? Bellwether? Not the best words for forsythia, the gangly, widely-grown shrub that flowers as winter wanes. Better is “herald,” the trumpeter announcing that royalty approaches.
Forsythia heralds Her Majesty the Growing Season with bright yellow flowers that you could see as trumpets if their four petals weren’t so unruly. There’s a moment, just before the leaves start to grow, when the whole shrub is a yellow cloud shouting: spring, spring, spring!
The forsythia in most gardens, Forsythia x intermedia, is a hybrid that combines features of many parents, most native to eastern Asia, all in the olive family. It has the vigor of a hybrid. Some plants reach fifteen feet tall and fifteen wide, and the flowering has the abundance of a hybrid.
But there are cultivars that vary in size, flower color, and autumn color. Only three feet by four feet is ‘Arnold’s Dwarf.’ Heavy-flowering is ‘Courtasol,’ also know poetically as ‘Gold Tide.’ Sulfur-yellow flowers are the mark of ‘Spring Glory,’ which also has yellow and purplish leaves in fall.
It’s a cane shrub, meaning all the stems emerge from a small footprint--the gnarled base of the plant--and the stems can grow ten feet long and remain slender, like the canes of a grapevine or a raspberry. (With forsythia, cane and stem mean the same thing.)
Forsythia needs training. You can prune in late winter, at the cost of some flowers, or after flowering, at the risk of disease. For an older shrub, saw out one-third of the oldest stems. New canes will replace them and bloom in their second or third year. Also remove canes that wander from the outside across the center of the plant. You want an airy interior so sunlight can reach new stems.
Long canes (stems) can trail their tips on the ground and make roots. Unrestrained, one shrub can leapfrog other plants and make a thicket. You can let tip-plants grow, then dig them up, roots and all, for gifts to friends or gifts to your garden.
In North America, thanks to gardeners, forsythia grows in 22 states and parts of Canada. Its wide range is the main reason that the National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) chose forsythia as a “calibration” species. Phenology is the study of natural events in the lives of plants, animals and insects. Volunteers, mostly amateurs, record the dates of events in forsythia’s life cycle such as flowering, leafing out and fall color. The data helps climate scientists and agriculture but will also help us gardeners, who someday will time sowing spinach (to invent an example) to forsythia’s first bloom.
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