Forsythia Flowers and Plants and the Life of William Forsyth
Beautiful Flowers of Spring
The beautiful forsythia shrubs are in bloom here on the British Columbia coast as I write this article. The bright yellow flowers appear in late winter to early spring before the leaves of the plant have fully emerged. The blossoms cover the branches, creating dramatic splashes of colour in both gardens and their surroundings. They are a wonderful sign that spring has arrived and are a promise of more floral joy to follow.
Forsythia is a genus of flowering plants that are mostly native to East Asia and belong to the olive family, or the family Oleaceae. The genus contains about eleven species. The number of species varies due to debates about how the numerous hybrids and cultivars in the genus should be classified. Forsythias are popular plants that have spread to many parts of the world. They are greatly admired for the glorious yellow flames produced by the flowers.
In the UK, the name of the plant is pronounced for-sigh-thia in honour of the horticulturist William Forsyth. In North America, the name is often pronounced for-sith-ia.
The Forsythia Plant
Forsythia plants grow as shrubs, which can become very large. They may reach a height of up to ten feet and a width of up to fifteen feet, depending on the species. A shrub has multiple stems. Some forsythia stems are so thick near their base that they need to be cut with a saw if they have to be shortened or removed.
Many forsythias have stems that arch. The plants can become unruly and produce fewer flowers if they aren't pruned, as I know from viewing the escaped garden plants growing at the edge of a wooded area near my home. Pruning is beneficial because it can produce a healthy plant and a lovely yellow fountain of flowers in the spring, as shown in the photo above. Some people form a hedge from the plants. This can look beautiful when all of the shrubs are in bloom at the same time.
Parts of a Flower
The stigma, style, and ovary form the carpel of a flower. In flowers with only one carpel, the carpel is also known as a pistil. Some flowers have several carpels joined together in their female reproductive structure. In this case, the group of carpels is known as a pistil.
Studio Time Lapse Video of Forsythia Flowers Opening
Forsythias have bright yellow to golden flowers. The so-called "pink forsythia" doesn't belong to the Forsythia genus. Its scientific name is Abeliophyllum distichum. Its flowers look quite like those of forsythia but are white to pink in colour, depending on the variety.
A forsythia flower has four petals that are joined at their base, where they form a tube. The petals usually hang downwards but are sometimes curved backwards, revealing the reproductive parts inside. The flowers contain two stamens (the male reproductive structures) and a pistil (the female reproductive structure). The stigma at the top of the pistil is lobed.
The flowers are pollinated by insects, especially bees. There may not be many of these early pollinators around when the forsythia flowers need them, though in my part of the world there are certainly some. The bees get an early start to their season here.
The beautiful flowers last for only a couple of weeks. The flower buds for the next spring form after the flowers have dropped. The buds need exposure to the colder temperatures of winter in order to open, but if the winter is very cold they may die.
The oval leaves of a forsythia are toothed and have a pointed tip. They become more noticeable as the flowers fade. The shrub is deciduous and the leaves are lost at the end of the growing season. Forsythia leaves often turn a beautiful red or yellow colour in the fall before they drop.
The Fruits and Their Potential Uses
Pollinated forsythia flowers produce fruit in the fall. The fruit is an oval capsule that is at first green and then turns yellow and finally brown. When it's mature, the capsule opens to reveal two chambers filled with seeds.
Forsythia suspensa fruits are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The plant is commonly known as lian qiao, golden bells, or the weeping forsythia. It's a popular ornamental plant in North America.
F. suspensa fruits are said to be anti-inflammatory and antipyretic. An antipyretic substance is one that reduces fever. Forsythia fruits and an extract from the fruits are also claimed to be antiviral substances. They are sometimes used to treat respiratory infections and problems such as colds, flu, and bronchitis. There isn't enough evidence supporting these uses to satisfy western researchers, however. Forsythia may or may not be an effective medicine.
Forsythia isn't considered to be dangerous when used in prescribed quantities. It's generally recommended that pregnant and lactating women avoid ingesting the plant until scientists learn more about the chemicals that it contains, however. In addition, anyone taking another medicine or being treated for an illness by a doctor should ask their doctor about the advisability of taking forsythia. Natural medicines can interact with pharmaceutical ones. Another important point to consider is that forsythia may slow blood clotting. It's not a good idea to take it before surgery or if another medicine that slows blood clotting is being taken.
Edibility of the Flowers
Forsythia is said to be non-toxic on lists of poisonous plants for pets and humans, as stated in the references below. There is a difference between being non-toxic and being edible, however.
Some people report that they eat forsythia flowers, although not in large quantities because the petals can taste bitter. The flowers are sometimes used as an attractive garnish on salads or are used to make an infusion.
It's nice to know that forsythias are safe to grow in a garden frequented by children and pets. I really think that we need to learn more about the chemicals in the plant and their effects on humans and animals before we forage for forsythias, though.
If someone decides to eat forsythia flowers, it's important to be absolutely certain about the selected plant's identity. It's also important to pick flowers from an unpolluted area that hasn't been treated with pesticides. I think that it's advisable to eat only a small quantity of forsythia until we know more about its effects.
How to Grow Forsythia From a Plant Cutting
Origin of the Plant's Name
The first forsythia discovered by a western scientist was Forsythia suspensa. Carl Peter Thunburg (1743-1828) was a Swedish surgeon and a botanist. He noticed the plant in a Japanese garden and collected some specimens. Thunberg gave the plant the scientific name Syringa suspensa and brought it to Europe.
The genus Syringa contains the lilacs. It was soon realized that forsythias had features that were different from lilacs and should really be classified in their own genus. The genus was changed to Forsythia in honour of William Forsyth, a renowned horticulturist of the day.
The first forsythia brought to Britain was Forsythia viridissima. It was found in China by Robert Fortune, an avid plant collector. Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima have given rise to a wide variety of hybrids. A popular cross between the two species is Forsythia X intermedia.
A Brief Biography of William Forsyth
William Forsyth was a Scottish horticulturist who lived from 1737 to 1804. Bruce Forsyth, a popular entertainer in the UK for many years, was a descendent of William Forsyth. Bruce became Sir Bruce Forsyth CBE in 2011. He died in August, 2017.
William Forsyth was born in the town of Oldmeldrum in Aberdeenshire. He received his training as a gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. The word "physic" in the garden's name means "healing". The Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. Its goal was to teach apprentices about the medicinal capabilities of plants. The garden still exists today, although it's smaller in size than it was during Forsyth's time.
Forsyth begun his career as a gardener for the Duke of Northumberland. He returned to the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1771 to become its head gardener. In 1784, he became an employee of King George the Third as the Chief Superintendent of the Royal Gardens at Kensington and King James's Palace.
Forsyth is credited with being the first person in Britain to deliberately create a rock garden. In 1802, he published a book about fruit tree management that became a best seller. In 1804—the year of his death—he attended an organizational meeting with six other notable men. This meeting was the origin of the Royal Horticultural Society. Today the organization is the leading gardening charity in the United Kingdom.
William Forsyth's Plaster for Oak Trees
Unfortunately, William Forsyth was involved in an unpleasant situation shortly before his death. He created a plaster (or "plaister") to be placed over wounds on oak trees, not only allowing them to survive but also enabling them to grow new wood. This was an important endeavour because oak trees were needed to build ships for the navy. The plaster contained fresh cow dung, lime, wood ashes, and sand. Strange as it may sound, cow dung may have the ability to fight certain microbes.
Forsyth was thanked by the Houses of Parliament for his creation and given a monetary award. There were claims from prominent people that his plaster didn't work, however. It's hard to tell how serious these accusations were for Forsyth's reputation from the reports that are available today.
It's a shame that Forsyth didn't live longer in order to have a chance to answer his critics. It's good that we can remember him in the name of such a beautiful plant, though, even if not everyone knows the origin of the name "Forsythia".
- A comparison of Forsythia and false Forsythia from Dave's Garden
- "Common Plants: What's Poisonous and What's Not?" from the University of Wisconsin (The list identifies Forsythia as non-toxic.)
- Information about golden bells from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
- Forsythia information from WebMD
- "The Founding and Founders of the Royal Horticultural Society" from Purdue University
- Facts about William Forsyth and his life from the Gazetteer for Scotland
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Can the forsythia shrub grow in any region?
Forsythia can’t grow everywhere, but it does have a wide distribution in Asia, Europe, and North America (and perhaps in other parts of the world). In the United States, Forsythia suspensa is hardy from zones 5 to 9 on the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) scale. Forsythia x intermedia is hardy from zones 5 to 8 and sometimes to zone 9.
© 2015 Linda Crampton