Several decades ago, when my best friend and I were in grade school, we inexplicably took up a crusade to correct the pronunciation of the generic name Forsythia. I have no recollection of how this happened, or why we thought it was important, but for many months we annoyed family, friends, and unfortunate strangers by pointing out that the spring-flowering shrub was named after someone named Forsyth – long “i” sound – and therefore should be pronounced “Forsythia” – long “i” and a hard “th” in the second syllable. The gauche and ignorant (at least in our estimation) were incorrectly pronouncing it “Forsithia,” with a short “i” and a voiceless digraph. Kids are strange.
Weird as we may have been, we were right about one thing: the genus Forsythia was named after William Forsyth, a Scotsman who helped found the Royal Horticultural Society. (His family name is pronounced with a long “i” and a soft “th”.) It’s part of the family Oleaceae, which includes the olives, the privets, and the lilacs. It appears everywhere thanks to its early bloom time and masses of yellow flowers, and is sold by the thousands in nurseries every spring. In our area, it’s a few weeks away from putting on its brief but welcome display.
My latest campaign is to earn a little respect for the forsythias. I propose to do this in two ways: by discussing pruning techniques, and by introducing some interesting hybrids and cultivars. What I will not do is tell you how to pronounce “Forsythia.”
Forsythia x intermedia – the most common form of the plant in cultivation – is often clipped into hedges or tight forms. Some gardeners prune it in fall or late winter. But there are nicer ways to treat Forsythia, and there are much better subjects for formal hedges or shrubs. Forsythia is at its best when allowed to grow naturally, with arching branches and a somewhat wild habit. But that requires a lot of space, which is why it is so often pruned, and pruned aggressively. I’ll discuss some ways you can use Forsythias in smaller spaces, but if you must prune your Forsythias – and even the most natural planting will benefit from a periodic grooming – you can read an excellent description of the approved technique here. The abbreviated (or pruned) version: cut crossing, older or damaged canes off at the base of the plant, removing no more than a third of all the canes. Don’t shear the plant, and don’t head off canes in the middle (i.e., don’t just cut a cane halfway along its length.) Try to retain as many healthy, gracefully arching canes as possible. The question of when to prune Forsythias is debated – I would suggest just after flowering (and before new flower buds are formed) – but others argue that pruning in late winter allows you to better visualize the form of the shrub, and lets you force the pruned canes for early bloom. Forsithia, Forsythia.
Incidentally, this is a good time to cut Forsythia branches for forcing. Simply bring the branches inside and keep them in a vase or bucket of clean water. I’ll discuss some of the more interesting Forsythias, including dwarf forms and cultivars with ornamental foliage, in my next article.