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Forsythia rules the spring

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Some gardeners snub forsythia as too common, but its golden effulgence in early spring taunts them. It seems to be saying, ''What else is there around?''

The profusion of yellow blossoms cheers hearts, heralding the arrival of a new season in the sun.

Living in the country, I'm particularly fond of the tall, graceful varieties that burst into bloom when trees are still bare and snow may be lingering. Even before that, I cut branches of forsythia in late winter and bring them indoors for forcing. In a week or so, they flower and brighten any room.

Outdoors, the blooming season lasts two or three weeks. After the flowers die, the thickly branched bushes play useful roles as screens and windbreaks. But they need careful pruning, which should be done just after the flowers fade. Once a year, the oldest stems should be cut about four inches from the ground.

Smaller varieties, some no taller than a foot, grace gardens everywhere to provide colorful accents or serve as hedges.

A native of China and eastern Europe, forsythia gets its British-sounding name from William Forsyth, an 18th century Scottish horticulturist who gained eminence in London's gardening world. But actually he had no connection with forsythia. His name was bestowed on the plant as an honorific by a Danish botanist, Martin Vahl, a common practice in horticulture.

Forsyth was an imaginative and controversial fellow. He was known as the originator of the first rock garden in Britain, which he built in Chelsea from old stones from the Tower of London and lava from Iceland. But he fell into disfavor over a concoction he invented which was supposed to heal wounds in trees. It was made of cow dung, lime, wood ash and river sand and its healing properties were soon disputed.

A closer connection to the plant was Robert Fortune, a Scottish explorer and Forsyth contemporary who brought samples of it and other exotic plants from China back to Britain. It quickly became popular because of its hardiness and easy cultivation. But some gardeners got tired of it and called it vulgar.

As anyone can see, its merits have endured over time, however, and it has become a symbol of spring, whether or not you want to have it in your own garden.

Forsythia may be started from cuttings or layering or bought from nurseries as young shrubs. They make fast growth, as much as two feet a year, depending on the variety. Some reach 10 feet in height.

To start from cuttings, you take slips from new growth, root them in a planting medium and then transplant them. The other method, layering, is done by bending a living branch of the bush to the ground, making a slanting cut in it and burying it slightly, pinning it in place with a hairpin. A few months later, you sever the new plant from the parent. But it's best to wait a year before transplanting it to a permanent site.

Gardeners without parent plants or wanting to skip these steps will find wide-ranging selections of forsythia, also known as golden bells, offered by nurseries. One of the best sources is Wayside Gardens of Hodges, S.C., Tel. 800-845-1124; www.waysidegardens.com. Their prices range from $19.95 apiece to $209 for a dozen.

A variety called Meadowlark is described as a boon to Northern gardeners to combat hard winters that sometimes reduce flowering. Developed in the Dakotas, this variety has proven bud-hardy in temperatures as low as 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The shrubs eventually reach a height of 6 feet to 9 feet.

Another variety, Spring Glory, grows about six feet tall and is hailed as unsurpassed for its profusion of blooms, as many as twice those of other varieties. It also is recommended for wintertime forcing indoors.

On the compact end is Gold Tide, a European dwarf of Spring Glory. It grows only 20 inches tall, but with a spread four feet and a mass of flowers.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, April 5



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