Forsythia saga springs surprises

Forsythia's bright yellow flowers herald the arrival of spring but the story behind this common shrub is far from straightforward

Forsythia need little care and are hardy in extreme temperatures

EVERY now and then we gardeners ought to pay homage to the intrepid explorers who risked life, limb and a large fortune to seek out the plants that today we take for granted.

Without them we'd have none of the exotic flora that over recent centuries have become staples in many European gardens. While these explorers-cum-collectors have been responsible for introducing some less desirable plants, such as Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed and the incongruous Cordyline australis, some of their discoveries were more benign. Imagine, for instance, something akin to a UKIP-tribute garden with no canna lillies, dahlias or tulips?

One of the most famous plant collectors was the aptly named George Forrest, who early in the last century brought rhododendrons to Europe and is no doubt cursed across the west of Ireland where the invasive alien Rhododendron ponticum is taking over.

David Douglas was another great collector and is responsible for bringing lupins from the New World, along with many common conifers – including the Douglas fir. He apparently met a nasty end in Hawaii aged only 35, when he plunged into a pit that had been dug to trap wild animals, only to be crushed by an equally unfortunate bull that fell in on top of him. Who said horticulture was for wuses?

Eighteenth century botanist and explorer William Forsyth was, like Douglas and many of their ilk, a Scot and also a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

In the coming weeks, as spring arrives and the days get noticeably longer, a plant named in his honour comes into bloom. The first forsythia – or 'Easter tree' – was not discovered by William Forsyth but by his Swedish counterpart Carl Peter Thunburg, who stumbled across it in a Japanese garden and collected some specimens.

Thunberg gave the plant the scientific name Syringa suspensa, which made it part of the lilac genus. However, it was soon discovered that forsythias should have their own genus, which was then named in honour of William Forsyth – an ancestor of late entertainer Bruce Forsyth.

In the east, forsythia is traditionally considered a herald of spring and is said to be a symbol of good nature, innocence, and anticipation. Korean legend states that the flower depicts the rejuvenation of love. If you don't put any stock in symbols and legends then on a more earthly note, who can't fail to be cheered by the sight of a mass of yellow blooms dripping from elegant dark arching branches? If the sky is dull, the blaze of yellow brightens the most miserable day.

The shrub only really took off in popularity after avid collector Robert Fortune introduced Forsythia viridissima to northern Europe in the mid 19th century. Together Forsythia suspensa it has since produced some notable hybrids, including Forsythia X intermedia – 'Lynwood', which carries the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), is the most popular cultivar.

A non hybrid that also boasts an AGM is Forsythia suspensa – also known as Golden Bells – while Forsythia 'Beatrix Farrand' can double as a climber if grown against support.

Forsythia is also a popular choice among container gardeners. They need little care and are hardy in extreme temperatures of the sort we experienced recently. They can be used successfully as a backdrop but equally are at home when planted in isolation. The shrub is particularly useful when grown on slopes as it can help prevent erosion by holding the earth together with its roots. Other uses include screening, shading or wind breaks.

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