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Forysthia  - Thunberg, Bruce and the Start of Spring

Forysthia - Thunberg, Bruce and the Start of Spring

When you see a Forsythia in its full yellow bloom, you know spring has arrived. Now they’re not a rare plant in a UK garden, far from it, but they do have an interesting history. It starts in China, has an obscure connection to urine and includes a familiar face. Not hard to work out who that may be.

The Syringa Suspensa was discovered and named by Swedish naturalist Carl Thunberg (not that familiar face) in a Japanese garden around the mid-1770s, although they originate from China where they were staples in the gardens of the rich.

Syringa is the botanical name for the lilac genus and Suspensa meaning ‘hanging’. It wasn’t until 1804 that horticulturalists noticed that it had too many differences to be classed as a lilac, a new name was needed.

Who died in 1804? Only a royal head gardener, founding member of the RHS and controversial botanist William Forsyth. Yes, the great-grandfather of Bruce. He made headlines towards the end of his life for the invention of his ‘tree plaster’ which was made from lime, dung, ashes, soapshuds and urine. To be used to help tree wounds heal or, as he claimed, could even be a replacement for the inside of a tree.

So there we go, the Forsythia was born. Come 1878 Herman Zabel spotted a hybrid in the municipal gardens of Münden, Germany. This would be coined Forsythia x intermedia, which is probably the most common type of Forsythia you’ll see in UK gardens today.

They flower early in the spring and have a deciduous nature so are rarely used as a center piece, though they are perfect for place amongst or at the back of a border. They aren’t self-pollinating so rely on our insect friends for help, providing an extra bonus in helping pollinators get a head start.

Place them next to other shrubs/trees such as Acers or Dogwood. For some extra colour, plant Tulips, Iris or Allium around them.

Ultimate Height/Spread: 3m / 1.8m

Life Cycle: Deciduous

Position: Full sun, Dappled Shade

Soil: Well drained

Flowering: March / April


  • Forsythia branches are used to make bow style sticks for the Korean ‘Ajaeng’ instrument
  • They’re classified as part of the Oleaceae family, or Olive to you and me.