Forsythia: For Or Against?

Forsythia bushes bursting with bright yellow flowers is a common springtime sight in this part of the world, a sight that lifts the spirits of many. Yet not everyone loves forsythia. The anti-forsythia camp argues for an indictment of this shrub on the following counts:

Forsythia in the mixed hedge on the west side of the back garden.

An exotic, it is of little wildlife value in North America. No berries for the birds. Not a host plant for butterflies or moths. On the other hand, I have found borers in the stems on a couple of occasions.

Once the yellow flowers are gone, it offers little of interest for the rest of the year. Actually, they sometimes have decent fall color. But even so, this is a plant that fades into the background much of the year.

It creates a thickety mess if you turn your back on it. As they grow, forsythia stems will arch down to the ground, where they put down roots and start a new plant. Ignore them for a season or two and you will have a jungle on your hands, albeit a bright yellow jungle in springtime.

It is just too damn common. I suspect this is the single biggest reason people really don’t like forsythia, and I would agree that it is over-used. On the other hand, some would say that black-eyed susan, also known as orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida), is over-used. This may be true, but I still love black-eyed susan. Simply being common does not always make a plant tiresome. If it does or not seems to be a matter that is entirely personal and subjective.

I suppose I am a member of the anti-forsythia camp, but I try not to be rabid about it. The lack of wildlife value for me is the deciding factor. A few years ago, we had to remove a forsythia hedge on the east side of the house in order to waterproof the basement. I did not mourn its passing.

Red Elderberry
Red elderberry fruit.

Instead, I took the opportunity to replace them with red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa L.), a native shrub with pyramids of small white flowers in spring, followed by bright red berries. It is a favorite of many birds, including cedar waxwings, orioles, and robins.  I should confess that this is another shrub that will pursue world domination if not watched closely. Also, though the fruit is edible for birds, it is also  toxic for humans.

I still have some forsythia in the mixed hedge along the west side of the back garden. I am trying to train these forsythia so that they will provide a better privacy screen, and also to prevent them from spreading in an unruly manner.

I admit that a well-pruned forsythia bush can be attractive, at least during it’s spring peak. Such a shrub is in front of one of the houses across the street. This forsythia is pruned to create an upright shape topped by arching stems that stop several feet above the ground.

See that forsythia through the gate and across the street? I like that one.

At the risk of being repetitive, I have to mention again that a good native alternative to forsythia is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This shrub has fragrant foliage, understated yellow flowers in early spring, is a butterfly host plant, and has attractive red berries of high value to birds in fall.

Spicebush in bloom

Which side of the forsythia divide are you on: for or against?

87 Comments on “Forsythia: For Or Against?”

  1. Forsythia looks to be an attractive plant. I think most people just grow what they want, and not really worry about the environmental impact of the plants they grow, however there are a lot of gardeners who do.

  2. I don’t love it. I think you made a wonderful choice with the red elderberry though as a replacement. You have definately peaked my interest in the spice bush though. Only thing is I’m not sure how it would do with our extreme heat that gets up to 100 plus degrees some days.

  3. Well, our street looks so pretty when it blooms, and I crave colour at this time of year. I agree there’s not much on offer for the wildlife, but if it’s planted among other more insect/bird-friendly plants, why not!

  4. I would be hard pressed to give forsythia space in my own garden but do enjoy seeing it in bloom. For non-gardeners (hard to believe there is such a thing!), it is both fast-growing and no-fuss. Some of the newer cultivars are nice; the dwarf ‘Show Off’ offers profuse blooms on upright branches and the variegated forms, such as ‘Golden Times’, perk up the garden with their foliage. And for those with deer problems, it can be a godsend.

    • I have to demur! Decades ago, growing up in the country in Connecticut (sorry) there was a lot of forsythia around. My older sister Cynthia thought it was named after her.

      I loved the yellow flowers coming pretty early in the spring. In one area they had grown so out, not particularly up,, that it made a little hut where we could play and go and hide.

      When I no longer livedchere, I begged for some so I could plant them behind a stone wall and watch as they bent over.

      While they may not be constructively environmental, I believe they are native. Unless one wants to plant something else in that spot, IMHO, there is a place for all growing life to add flourishing and delight worth waiting for as the season announces itself.

  5. I used to be against but then this spring my ‘mother-in-law’ gave me a rooted cutting in full bloom… How could I say no? (to her I mean, not to some flashing yellow flowers…) The plant ended up at the far corner of the woodland garden, I certainly don’t want a blinding yellow flower against my red painted house…
    If there was a competition, though, I would vote for the spicebush first (which I know thanks to you) and for the elderberry, always a good choice for wildlife.

  6. Years ago we dug out a huge one that had become a nuisance because it was up against the house. This week I went into the woods and found two that I put on the edge of the woods so we will be able to see them in bloom but not have to deal with it. I’m going to check your Spicebush out, thanks.

  7. So glad I am not the only one opposed to the yellow monster. As a confirmed birder I prefer fruit bearing shrubs but that is not the only reason to oppose this exotic. When I liver in rural Plainfield, the only bloom my bushes produced were on the lower branches protcted by winter snows

  8. I can understand all the anti forsythia sentiment but then I try to imagine what spring would be without the brilliant bursts of yellow on every street in town. I think spring would be much less cheery without them.
    The best displays I’ve seen are large masses planted on hillsides or at the edges of forests where they can grow naturally.

  9. I agree with spicebush as a great alternative. . . love it. But I like forsythia too, used well. That means you shouldn’t prune it into any kind of tortured shape, and it shouldn’t be planted in one clump as a foundation shrub. Planted far away as a big mass, it does its job of hiding whatever you want to screen out, and the yellow color is brash and beautiful from a distance.

  10. I am definitely FOR forsythias. I particularly love driving the rural roads around here and seeing vast patches of it, growing wild. It is so refreshing to see such bright, brazen color glowing against the still mostly bare landscape. I have two bushes, and I tell you, I wish they would bend their stems down to take root and spread!

    Your post reminded me that when I wrote my “What’s Blooming Now” post for May Day, I totally forgot to put in the forsythia picture! Now, do I go back and edit it in, or do I just wait and feature it in my next post? Hmm. . .

  11. It depends on what time of year it is. In spring I’m for them; all other times of the year it annoys me. The birds love hanging out and nesting in mine, too. The rooting is a problem and I just know that trying to make my forsythia more manageable is going to be a whole weekend project.

  12. I have mixed feelings about forsythia: its pretty in spring, but as you point out, there is nothing beyond an early spring show to recommend them. That it is common does not bother me in the least. I have a huge one at the side of the house that is a bit of a monster. After it finishes flowering, I am going to cut it back in half.

  13. Although I appreciate the bright yellow early flowers, I am perfectly happy to admire them in the gardens of others. I grow a variegated variety F. ‘Fiesta’ which stays around four feet and adds foliage interest for the whole growing season.

  14. My daughter just loves forsythia, and she has convinced me to be in the “for forsythia” camp. She has actually made me look at a lot of plants differently. She likes them because she thinks they’re pretty, and doesn’t even know about the different camps for (or against) certain plants. I think that’s refreshing.

  15. I have to admit to being in the anti-forsythia camp. Mainly due to the reasons you have quote Jason. My neighbour grows this, along with almost everyone else around here, but not in my garden. I probably wouldn’t mind the one growing on the other side of the fence if she didn’t prune it at the wrong time – I wish it looked like the one across the street from you. At this moment it has 2 little flowers and each time I look at it, I want to cut it down!! Oops, sorry for the rant, not my intention.

    • Never apologize for ranting. People who prune their forsythias or lilacs at the wrong time (say fall) drive me nuts. Especially if they do it year after year. Don’t they know these are supposed to be flowering shrubs? Do they even think that they might be doing something wrong when there are no flowers one spring after another?

  16. I’m definitely in the “against” category. Although it can be beautiful in the spring, its form is usually unattractive and it simply takes up too much room. Room that would be MUCH better used by a native shrub of some sort. I inherited a large forsythia patch when we purchased this house and we’ve slowly started removing it. I haven’t replaced any of the bushes yet, but am leaning towards aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica), here on the plains of Kansas. It’s native, with good fall color and wildlife value…plus it’s VERY hardy and can handle prairie inconsistencies with little trouble.

  17. I’m on the fence. Like you with your neighbors across the street, I’ve loved other people’s forsythia. Ours was here when we bought the house. I “learned” to prune on it by hacking at it in all the wrong ways. It survived. You are right that it’s boring after the flowers are gone and it does nothing for the birds or butterflies. However it will be a monster to dig out for two people with bad backs. On the other hand, I’d love the space for something new!

  18. Pingback: I Forgot the Forsythia! | Cosmos and Cleome

  19. Hated it. (Living Color TV salute). Scrappy shrub with garish yellow blooms and nondescript green leafed shrub rest of year. Only reason to have one is for forcing. But can sneak a few branches of the hordes of bushes that are out there. Too pedestrian for my taste. Count me in FHC (Forsythia Haters Club).

  20. Since you just read my post, I bet you know my answer to your question. The tree and shrub nursery that I work with does grow fields of them for sale. They are very popular for homeowners too. You would be surprised how many buy this plant and never realize to what size it grows either.

  21. Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. I like looking at other people’s Forsythias, but I’m not happy with mine. We have a row of dwarf Forsythias that are covered with Oak leaves, so they barely bloom. I’m not sure trimming them would really help, but maybe that’s what I need to do. I think they will be the next shrubs I will pull out. This year, I’m removing some obnoxious Currant bushes and replacing them with Red Twig Dogwood. Thanks for the Spicebush recommendation.

  22. Must admit Jason I am a gardening snob and have never planted forsythia in my own garden. Its a bit like dandelions, if they were not so common we would all be rushing to grow them- they are really quite magnificent!
    I do have a large ten square metre clump of forsythia in Worsbrough cemetery garden that I maintain in Barnsley. It was completely raised to the ground five years ago and has rejuvinated to make a fantastic specimen – quite in scale on a thee acre site and I am sure it harbours plenty of wildlife.

    • A field of blooming dandelions is a lovely sight, it is true. Hard for me to conceive of a three acre site, but I guess you would have the room for 10 square meters of forsythia. I would love to have the ability to garden on such a big site, there is so much you can do (assuming you have the time, that is).

  23. I didn’t know that Foresythia was not native. I see them around everywhere even by roadside that I thought they were native. Mine is a jungle mess, but I let it grow like that because I see lots of birds taking refuge in that mess.

  24. I don’t love them either never have. But ther people sure do because they are everywhere. I just planted 3 in a row to make a hedge this fall but only because they are one of the few shrubs that do well under walnuts and I really want the privacy. I hope to keep them looking pretty neat and I might plant something else in front of them yet like old fashioned hydrangea bushes or something. I think you have to take care of them for the wow factor. Great post! I like the elderberry and I have a few of a different variety and they do make great berries but the birds never eat them. My chickens love them though.

  25. If the garden is big enough and there’s the space then there should definitely be some room for forsythia. In a tiny garden like mine, I need to be much more careful about selecting plants for the value they bring (to me, to wildlife etc) and unfortunately, forsythia misses out for the reasons you mention.

  26. Here on Forsythia Hill in Central Virginia, I LOVE IT. Unclipped please! It’s a great protector shrub for foxes, birds, and other wildlife (if a big enough clump). I’m linking to my blog post that shows a nice example of how it can be used and how ugly it can look pruned! I think it also depends on the variety and how well it grows in your area. It was here when we bought the house and we have 2 acres for it to go crazy on. The tall variety if not the best shrub for a small lot – I love your choice of Elderberry – also a great plant! If it was not on our lot when we moved in I most likely would not have thought about it, I try to get native plants. I have learned to really appreciate it and love the Spring color – can’t be beat!

  27. I am against — The yellow isn’t attractive in my opinion. I have a neighbor who has it as a border between her house and the street. She then added it as a border between our yard (even though we already have pine trees). I don’t care, but I am perplexed. Isn’t there enough Forsythia? I just don’t think it’s attractive AT ALL. I don’t get it.

  28. I’m not in favor of forsythia. The brief beauty of the blooms is not worth the annual battle of pruning and digging out the spreading sprawl. I would like my small Chicago garden to be an oasis for wildlife. There are already far too many forsythias planted around our neighborhood.

  29. against. for all the reasons you mentioned. my neighbor put a whole property length row of these and then put up deer fencing (understandable in our area, and i get the benefit of no deer on that side of my property) BUT the fence was put up right against her forsythia so now they bend over in our direction. i have a garden bed on the other side so i’m constantly pruning HER hedges. then she has the audacity to tell how & when to prune. they have snapped (onto our side of course) in snowstorms, etc. not a fan.

    • She must love her forsythia! Neighbors, ugh, don’t get me started. I would hack away if on your property — I mean really – CAN YOU KILL FORSYTHIA? I don’t think so! The biggest problem are the tips that touch down and root so you do have to continually hack back the edges or they will create babies. The best place for Forsythia is where it can free meander. I only have it where it can’t become a nuisance 🙂

  30. Pingback: Forsythias: Fab or Fail? - Connecticut Green

  31. It seems apparent from the comments that forsythia do, in fact, have wildlife value for shelter and nesting. Used in a mixed border with consideration for wildlife value in other selections of shrubs and trees, they can increase the multi-season interest of the planting as a whole. The very early spring blooms in the colder zones are quite uplifting after a long winter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: