Around the Island

Gardening with Galligan: Forsythia heralds spring

The hands of the Great Powers have painted the Island yellow, with a dash of pink here and there and a lovely sheen overhead of bright spring green. I have to try hard to watch the road, keeping my car in one piece, everything is so lovely to look at. I know it will fade eventually but this first flush of color after the boring sameness of winter feels like a gift.

The yellow, of course, comes from forsythia, a genus of flowering shrubs that bloom in early spring before the leaves of the plants have fully emerged. They are mostly native to East Asia but have spread around the world. If not pruned they can grow to significant heights, up to ten feet. In my experience, they very quickly respond to fertilization and a fairly skinny specimen can become a healthy fat one in a single season. In fact, they are more responsive to feeding than almost any other plant that I can think of.

The flowers are pollinated by insects, most particularly bees, so one has to hope for a fairly warm spring, lest the bees be still sleeping. The flowers last for only two to three weeks, the buds for the following spring forming after the flowers have dropped. These buds require the colder temperatures of winter in order to bloom. 

In the fall, forsythia flowers become fruits, small capsules which are first green, before turning yellow and eventually brown, which open to reveal seeds. These fruits have been used extensively in traditional Chinese medicine, where they were believed to be anti-inflammatory as well as antipyretic, i.e. reducing fever.

Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) was the first western scientist to take note of forsythia; he was a Swedish surgeon and a botanist and noticed the plant in a Japanese garden, collected some specimens and returned with them to Europe. But it was Robert Fortune, described in his biography as “an avid plant collector,” who brought the plant to Britain. 

Enter William Forsyth, a Scottish horticulturist, living from 1737 to 1804, who was born in Aberdeenshire and trained at the Chelsea Physic (“physic” in this sense means “healing”) Garden in London. He had begun his career as a gardener for the Duke of Northumberland and in 1784 became an employee of King George the Third as the Chief Superintendant of the Royal Gardens at Kensington and King James’s Palace. In 1804, shortly before his death, he and six other notable gardeners, attended a meeting that became, eventually, the Royal Horticultural Society. 

I don’t know how the plant is referred to in Great Britain, but in America it’s pronounced for-sith-ia, not as for-sigh-thia. But hopefully, if he knew, he might not mind; he was most certainly significantly honored in his lifetime.

Enjoy the spring, everyone! And drive carefully!