spicebush, cornelian cherry, and more: forsythia alternatives, please

lindera-and-bench2HAVING COMPLAINED in various spaces including here about Forsythia (except the lesser-grown forms with gold or variegated leaves, which are at least a little worthy), I thought it time to offer alternatives. I have already praised the early witch-hazels but there are more possibilities.

Winter-hazel, or Corylopsis, is one fine example, and a close relative of witch-hazel, and there are several species, each bearing dangling chains of yellow flowers in early spring, before the leaves unfold. In botanical terms, a plant that does that—blooms when leafless—is called precocious, and winter-hazels are certainly that. Underplanted with a mass of tiny blue bulbs like Chionodoxa sardensis, chosen to coincide in bloom time with the shrub, the effect is especially pleasing.

There are a number of species to select from, including C. glabrescens, the hardiest of the lot, which can reach about 15 feet. Its pale yellow flowers are scented sweetly. C. spicata (which in my Zone 5 has about a 60-40 chance of flowering success, since late frosts are common), is smaller, more wide than tall, and I appreciate its spreading shape—perhaps 6-10 feet high and just as wide. The other reason that this one was my choice: its leaves. They open with a pinkish-purple tinge, then turn a particularly beautiful blue-green for summer, retaining a touch of pink where they attach to the twigs.

C. platypetala is another 15-footer; C. pauciflora is the little guy of the bunch, only 5 or 6 feet high and wide. Its foliage is also about half the scale of its larger brethren, and unlike the others, which prefer full sun, the latter is better off in light shade. Corylopsis may go a pleasing yellow in fall or just go brown; I haven’t quite figured out which does what which year or why.

cornus mas gold leafA couple of informal-looking shrubs, the native spicebush and the Cornelian cherry, detail above, are also very valuable, and completely carefree. The former, technically known as Lindera benzoin, shown up top, has tiny yellow flowers with a spicy fragrance in early spring, and astonishing, yellow late-fall color. Its small fruits are appreciated by birds. It can tolerate the shade of a deciduous woodland garden, where it fits right in.

The latter, Cornus mas, is actually a kind of dogwood, not a cherry at all. But its large, glossy red fruits look like cherries—if you get over to see them before the wildlife has at the crop, which I rarely do. Grow Cornus mas for its very early, yellow flowers, like so many little yellow puffballs, that in their profusion over the 20-foot-by-15-foot mature framework create a fantastic yellow haze. It also has attractive, peeling bark and can be pruned more like a small tree if desired, by cutting out some of its multiple stems. Give it a spot in the sun for best flowering and fruiting. A recent variety with gold foliage is particularly nice.

jasmine, shadbush and more

There is no jasmine scent to yellow-flowered Jasminum nudiflorum, but that’s the only bad thing I have to say about it. A sprawling creature well-suited to arching over a wall, it will put out bursts of bloom anytime the sun shines and the days begin to warm in late winter and earliest spring, a welcome sight (but for slightly warmer zones than mine, perhaps; I have not tried it here).

Shadbush, or serviceberry (Amelanchier species) is not yellow-flowered at all, but white, and another early-bloomer. The smallest among this genus of native small trees is A. canadensis, which stays under about 15 feet; a friend has also shared with me a piece of what he knows as A. stolonifera, a much smaller, spreading thicket of a plant. Frankly even nurserymen and taxonomists are confused about which species is which and plants are often misnamed. All the Amelanchier have clouds of delicate white blossoms; red fruit that’s tasty (to birds and people) and later turns black, and hot fall foliage color, plus handsome gray bark.

I could go on with my forsythia alternatives: There’s native Fothergilla, with white bottle-brush flowers, beautiful leaves not unlike those of its cousins, the witch-hazels, and the winter-hazels, and fiery fall color. The various unusual pussy willows (Salix species)—ones with black (S. melanostachys) catkins, or rosy ones, for instance (S. gracilistyla)—would be nice massed in a moist spot. If pink is more your taste, what about the deciduous native pinkshell azalea, Rhododendron vaseyi, that blooms in a woodland setting before its leaves (or those on the trees around) unfurl? Are you ready to let go of your forsythia yet?

  1. rthyland says:

    As a former Brooklynite, it’s hard for me to forsake that borough’s official flower and its urban garden virtues. Agreed — there are many worthy forsythia alternatives. Onward.

  2. Gina Hyams says:

    You know, my husband is from Connecticut and he hates forsythia, too, but as a Californian, to me it just looks cheery.

  3. margaret says:

    Welcome, Gina. Great comment.
    So here’s my theory: When you make a garden, it will have lots of forsythia. When I make one, little or none will be included (ditto for your husband, if he makes his own place). That’s what’s so great: There are so many, many plants to choose from, we can all do just as we please. Alpines, grasses, perennials, shrub borders, woodland shade gardens, vegetables, herb gardens, all pastels, all hot colors only…you name it. That’s what gardening is all about: personal creative expression, who cares what the neighbors think!

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Marcia. Love the “scrambled eggs on a stick” thing. Wonderful. I have t been to Dumbarton Oaks in early spring, so maybe I, too, would be silenced in my criticism.

  5. Marcia says:

    A very good gardening friend of mine once characterized badly “pruned” forsythia as “scrambled eggs on a stick”, I have never been able look at the plant without remembering her comment. Years later she confided that seeing the forsythia glen at Dumbarton Oaks had caused her to reexamine her poor opinion of the plant.

  6. christine says:

    You are too funny! I have to admit I have a soft spot in my heart for forsythia, as it reminds me of my grandma. However, after attempting to fit one into my smallish town garden I have realized the importance of the right plant for the right (tiny) space! You try things and learn and grow, right?! I am so pleased to have found your blog, I so enjoyed your years with Martha and love your book for so many reasons. I’m grateful to know I can continue to enjoy your knowledge and writing. Thanks!

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome, Christine. So glad you are here with us. Funny about how some plants have a place in memory and therefore in our hearts (even if they don’t fit int he place we try to squish them!)

  8. Terra says:

    When I saw you are discussing alternatives to forsythia I headed right over to read this, and took note of your recommendations.
    I have a healthy forsythia that does not give flowers! So I wouldn’t plant another, I think it is too temperate a climate here in CA.
    Did you know my new book on celebrating Christmas is out now? Hope you don’t mind my mentioning it; my co-authors call me the gardening guru because of all the green tips I included.

  9. margaret says:

    Thanks, Terra, and glad to have a peek at your book, thanks. Good luck with a more cooperative harbinger of spring than your recalcitrant forsythia. What about Jasminum nudiflorum...yellow very early flowers. Would that work there? Not sure where you are exactly…

  10. Cynthia says:

    When I was a child I mis-heard the name and thought Mom said, “for Cynthia”, my personal yellow-flowered bush.

    I grew up in the house my mother grew up in and where she still lives at 83. The forsythia there was planted by my grandmother before I was born.

    I have planted a forsythia at every home garden for that reason.

  11. margaret says:

    Welcome, Cynthia. What a great story of why a plant means what it does to you: because you shared a name! Thanks. It is a cheerful beginning to the season and this year all the big ones near me all turned gold before their leaves dropped, the conditions for fall color having been met, apparently. I have to say, I quite enjoyed them right then.

  12. Helga says:

    Just found your site and read the comments on Forsythia with interest. We have a large piece of property ringed by Forsythia. They are old and messy but their absolutely best characteristic is that DEER do not like them.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Helga. You are correct: They are great in that sense indeed. At the edges of the extensive woods all around my property, where long ago there were other houses, there are giant old forsythias as well (and many deer). I enjoy looking at the shrubs in spring from a distance, and as you say, the deer don’t browse them. I just think in the yard proper, where there is limited space in prime spots near the house, there are better things. Hope to see you and hear more about your plantings soon.

  13. Kay says:

    I’m looking for the name of a vine-like shrub, long vines that make you think it is a shrub until you get close to it…and it is covered with yellow blooms, earlier than forsythia, but about the same color…has 6 petals to the small bloom….definitely not forsythia though, and not a tree. It began to bloom in late January and early Feb here in NE Oklahoma.

  14. Deirdre says:

    “White Forsythia”, Abeliaphyllum distichtum (I’m not sure i spelled that right, but I’m too lazy to look it up). Blooms earlier, is half the size, and is fragrant.

  15. Sharon says:

    Margaret — I got to this post looking for anything on bush cherries (did you know your Q&A Forum links are not working?). Do you know how to pit them and use the fruit effectively? I grow them along with a large shadbush, blueberries, and other small fruit. They’re tasty, but I’d like to do something with them other than just eat them fresh.

  16. Barb S. says:

    I’ve grown tired of our rather worn out forsythias. However, they are so very entangled in the metal fence where they rest/reside that I’m wondering about the serious challenge it would be to remove them. We have about 14′ of them along the fence. Additionally, how much work will it be to dig to China to remove their old/nasty roots? Will we have to hire this done? Yikes.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barb. Sounds like a big job, but doable, of course. Cut them down first and then set about digging chunks of the root masses out. I am blessed to have a neighbor who loves hiring out for jobs like this…so of course if there is someone at the ready, help is always a good thing. I usually can’t get big things out in one piece, but with a pick and sharp shovel and so on, practice makes perfect… :)

  17. terryk says:

    Do you grow Hamamelis ‘arnolds promise’ Margaret? If you do, can you comment on it’s fall foliage? Or can anyone?

    A few years back on a website, gardenbuddies, someone posted a photo of one at NYBG which was just starting to get it’s fall color. It demonstrated red colors along the edge of the still green leaves and later is went over to shades of red, gold & orange. It was stunning.

    I have one in my garden that is labeled ‘arnolds promise’ but it does not do this. I am wondering if it is mislabeled or soil conditions affect the fall coloring of these shrubs.

    I am going to purchase one (tomorrow) and would love to know if you have the colors i discribed above in fall?

  18. Marie says:

    Hello Margaret,
    I am looking for a privacy hedge type alternative for the rear of my property .
    There are other tall trees, so partial shade at best. We also have a deer issue! Do you have any suggestions?
    Thank you for your wonderful website!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Marie. Something shade-tolerant and privacy-providing (which I assume means evergreen) that deer won’t eat. Oh, boy. Deer will eat anything, in my experience, if they are hungry enough — or at least in these cold snowy winters I have here they will. I have seen them eat prickly spruce trees in desperation. You could space white pines close together and shear them (as if they were a hedge) to keep them somewhat tight…and they will tolerate some shade (but not the darkness!).

      If there as more light I would say a “wall” of tall ornamental grasses, which are not big deer favorites usually and would give you all but a few months of coverage. But the combo of shade and deer…not easy.

  19. Michael Dodge says:

    Hello Marie/Barbara.
    Salix purpurea varieties (Purple Willow) are something that deer won’t touch–they’re too bitter. Apparently the French use them to protect their basket-making willows from deer damage. I have a 6′ fedge (fence/hedge) woven out of purpurea varieties and deer never touch it as they go around to get into my Winter Garden. I plan to continue this fedge all the way round this garden to keep them from the choice/expensive plants they seem to prefer! Purpureas can be grown as fedge, as I mentioned, or as a large shrub/small tree, size depends on the variety.

  20. Lin says:

    Been reading the comments on flowering spring shrubs and I also don’t care a lot for forsythia, but there is a miniature spreaching forsythia shrub which gives cheerful spring blooms in midAtlantic states and is easy to keep pruned and in bounds. They make a very nice low deciduous plants for a small garden and are trouble free.

  21. Gale Haynes says:

    Personally, I like the look of bright cheery look of forsythia in the distance after a long, bleak, Catskill winter; however, I am eager to learn about native plants that support wildlife and pollinators and so I thank you for your very informative post. I have Amelanchier ,Aronia arbutifolia, and Cornus alternifolia and look forward to incorporating more and more native trees and shrubs in the garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Gale. Those are all great ones. The Lindera benzoin or spicebush is lovely, super-early, and native. Very high wildlife value. I am experimenting with more native viburnums, too — acerifolium and prunifolium and so on. I think the birds will be pleased!

  22. Mary says:

    I have 3 mature forsythia on the edge of the driveway, in shadow of pine trees and a few beech trees. It seems like a good idea to replace them with flowering native shrubs that will thrive in shade. ‘

    1) Which native shrubs might be a good choice?
    2) When to dig out the large forsythias — now,when ground is wet OK?
    3) Is there a forum to post for somwone who might want the forsythias, which are healthy (tho they get almost no sun anymore)?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. I don’t know where you live so can’t suggest what’s native there. As for when to dig, don’t dig when wet or the soil will turn to cement, you know? Let it drain a bit. I don’t know a way to hand down the forsythias — I’d just discard them.

  23. Mark Dabagger says:

    I find many of these comments distressing. “It is all about me.” Actually, it’s not. Forsythia is a native of Asia, and is not used in the same way as native plants would be, by the insects and other creatures that we share the world with.

    You should be planting plants NATIVE TO YOUR AREA to help local insect and bird populations, not repeating the gardening mistakes of your forbearers. This is important. Please educate yourself about the importance of planting the rights plants.

    Remember when you were a kid, and taking a drive at night would reveal a world of bugs in the headlights? But now, it doesn’t. That’s not good for the planet. Don’t be a part of the problem.

    If you need more convincing, please watch Doug Tallamy’s powerpoint presentation on youtube.

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