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Forsythia: Boring or Beautiful
by Jennifer Schultz Nelson
March 14, 2010

There are many signs of spring, but one that tells me spring is finally coming with no turning back is when the forsythia are in bloom, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“But I know there are people out there who think forsythia is the last plant they want in their landscape,” said Jennifer Schultz Nelson.

“Two common complaints heard about forsythia is that they only have a brief period of beauty in the early spring (if flowers develop and are not killed by freezing temperatures) followed by months of “boring” green foliage, plus they are overused in the landscape. In defense of forsythia, there are some remedies for these very valid complaints.”

When there is snow cover, it is not uncommon for cultivars sensitive to frigid temperatures to develop flowers only where snow provided insulation and protection. Any branch tips left exposed to the wind and cold do not develop flowers as the buds are killed by extended freezing temperatures. This leads to an uneven-looking flower display in the spring.

As with any landscape planting, do your homework and pick the right plant for the right place. Forsythia flower best in full sun, and if flower loss to freezing temperatures is an issue, choose one of the cultivars specifically developed to tolerate colder temperatures, such as Meadowlark, Northern Gold, or Northern Sun.

“Flower production can be maximized by working with the growth habit of forsythia, not against it,” she said. “It naturally grows with arching branches in a very irregular, rounded shape. Trying to force these shrubs to behave by shearing them into formal hedges removes a good percentage of the flower-producing branches and destroys much of the flowering potential.”

As with most spring-flowering shrubs and trees, forsythia develop the next year’s flower buds during the summer following flowering. If you prune during the summer, you risk removing the flower buds for next spring.

The proper time to prune forsythia is immediately after flowering, removing the oldest, thickest branches, which allows light into the center of the shrub and makes room for new shoots. General shrub-pruning guides suggest removing only about a quarter to a third of the total number of branches at one time.

“If you have particularly neglected and unkempt forsythia that no longer flowers, consider a renewal pruning this spring,” Nelson said. “Renewal pruning is a gentle way of saying to remove all branches, leaving only three- to four- inch stubs at ground level. Although it sounds cruel, new shoots will emerge quickly, and flowering should resume the following year.

“In my opinion, overuse in the landscape is largely a planning issue. Too often we look at landscapes in freeze-frame, not considering what a given scene will look like at various points in the year. A mass planting of forsythia will no doubt attract attention, but why not plant additional plants to catch people’s eyes at other times?”

Flower hardiness aside, forsythia are exceedingly durable plants. University of Illinois horticulture professor Gary Kling has noted that mature forsythia have survived applications of the non-selective herbicide glyphosate (a.k.a. Roundup®) without flinching. This resilient nature may be one factor contributing to some people’s perception of its “overuse” in public areas like parking lots and medians. Considering the often high cost of installing and maintaining public landscapes, choosing tough plants seems logical, although it can get monotonous.

“Despite some perceived drawbacks, I think forsythia has a place in the landscape, if for no other reason than a dose of color during a time of year that is depressingly dreary,” she said. “Although I would not suggest making forsythia the only thing you plant in your landscape, a specimen or two would brighten up your early spring landscape.”

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