forsythia alternatives pt. 2: spicebush

lindera-fallIN CASE I FAILED TO CONVINCE YOU in earliest spring that you didn’t want a Forsythia, but a Lindera benzoin or spicebush instead, more evidence just presented itself. Now try to resist this native Eastern shrub, and tell me that your Forsythia measures up to its gold standard. Subtly good in spring, it’s fall’s runaway winner.

  1. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jean. Thanks for the good suggestions. I also know that Woodlanders nursery in S.C. has quite a collection, including this Zone 7-9 one that’s said to be similar to L. benzoin. Not sure about ones for hot/dry, but Woodlanders is worth a look. Hope to see you again here soon.

  2. Jean says:

    Some of us in the hottest humid south and farther west grow a different ‘yellow bells’ — Tecoma stans, known in Texas as Esperanza. Summer blooming, it’s great in a fiesta bed with other hot colors like Pride of Barbados or Stachytarpheta.

  3. Kitt says:

    Gorgeous! I love seeing what does well in your garden, as I can guess that it would tolerate our cold winters here. My only concern is water requirements, as we’re much drier. Forsythia does seem a bit more drought-tolerant.

  4. Bobster says:

    Margaret, it’s beautiful. Give me a spicebush over forsythia any day. Way too many badly pruned forsythias out there!

    I also love the alternate late winter shot from nearly the same vantage point. A camera is the least used and one of the most useful tools I think a gardener has.
    It’s easy to get caught up in the current season and forget the season past or the season about to approach.

    A couple reference shots for occasional review help to keep the whole gardening year in perspective.

  5. Layanee says:

    That is a lovely composition of plants. A great garden space. I love the Lindera in early spring with the acid yellow flowers blooming in the woods. Spring is so very far away….

  6. Rosanne says:


    I would love to have a spicebush in my front city garden – how lovely! But I’m afraid that it would be a bit bigger than my small plot could handle. Any other, smaller (esp less wide) forsythia alternatives for zone 5/Toronto?

    PS. Reading A Way to Garden each day is such a treat! Thanks!

  7. andrea says:

    Oh how glorious! Margaret, you are a landscape artist as well as master gardener and the rare teacher one always hopes for but is rarely gets. I am looking forward to planting this and the multi trunk Stewartia that I am having some difficulty finding. But I surely will!

  8. Ted says:

    This has been on my wish list for a while. It’s not sold or grown here in western WI. From my reading it think our soil might a little too dry and alkaline, but I’ll buy the first one I see to find out for myself!

    I’ll also defend forsythia, I’m growing ‘Meadowlark’. I love the forced branches in the winter and early spring bloom. In fall, it’s one of the last shrub to turn and put on a good show. The exterior leaves turn purple while interior leaves turn gold. A glowing ember in the frosty landscape.

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Rosanne. Am pondering your request for a very cold-hardy early thing that doesn’t get wide…hmmm…no instant answer but I am thinking on it.

    @Kitt: Yes, I have read that besides shade it likes a moist (but not sodden soil). There are Lindera that are more drought-tolerant, apparently, but I do not find them for sale (e.g., L. erythrocarpa). :(

    @Curtis: I’d scan the offerings at Woodlanders nursery and see which one suits your situation. It is native from Ontario and Maine all down the Eastern part of the country and then even into Florida, and over into Texas apparently, and even Kansas. You must give it shade; it is a woodland plant, so don’t bake it.

    @Bobster: Yes, the camera…now that I am blogging, I am really starting to “get” what’s going on outside, because I am taking the photos and storing them. So helpful.

  10. Eric says:

    Many years ago an acquaintance attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design for a degree in (and now successfully practices) landscape architecture and had a plants class with a prominent professor/landscape architect who referred to forsythia as the “vomit of spring.” I’ve struggled for years between this (supposedly) erudite view and my own personal memories of my Grandmother’s joy of forsythia as the harbinger of spring. So, while the forsythia does tend to bore me, I enjoy the reminder of my childhood and my Grandma and a cutting of her plant now grows and flourishes in a wooded bank of mixed shrubbery in my garden. Its familiar yellow blooms stand out among the bare branches in late winter/early spring but then it steps back in its plain green-ness to allow for more personally pleasing choices in the summer and fall.

  11. Brian G. says:

    I just bought three Abeliophyllum Distichum or ‘white forsythia’. This is a pink variety called ‘pink star’ and is supposedly a slow grower. Is the spicebush also slow to mature? I’m getting too old for these slow-poke plants!

  12. margaret says:

    @Ted and @Eric: Truth be told, there is forsythia in view here, too, though not in the garden…remnants of other farms long gone, I guess, but I enjoy their spring show from a distance, out beyond my garden proper.

    @Brian G: I have probably 10 Lindera, and the ones in dry-ish spots sized up slower than the ones where there was somewhat better soil and a more even supply of moisture. They are not fast, but not as slow as a beech tree or anything (not painful). When one got far too big for its space I cut it to the ground and it pretty quickly regrew to a nice shrub, so I am guessing that it’s the rooting in that takes the time, but once settled it grows more vigorously than at first. I suspect I am older than you, and I just planted two or three more last spring. Go for it.

  13. Brian G. says:

    44 on Thursday so I’m not so far behind you;-)
    I’m old enough to know the years pass quickly (waaay too quickly, oy!) but when I read some of these woody plant descriptions giving mature dimensions ten years out, I seize up. Will I even still own this garden in five to ten years? I guess I should live more in the moment, stop projecting and as you so rightly say, “go for it”.

  14. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    I’m with Ted. No need to choose–have both! Or if you must choose, pick what will grow best in your conditions. No sense picking an acid lover for alkaline conditions. But I think I would pursue natives over non natives. Memories and emotions also have a lot to do with plant choice. If you associate forsythia with great Easter holidays at Grandma’s house, as I do, then you are going to want a forsythia even if you live in southern California, and pine and whine because it just won’t grow.

  15. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    Having said that, now I want a spicebush. Do you know of any more northern sources for it than Woodlanders?

  16. margaret says:

    @Kathy: I don’t know any mail-order sources that I have used personally, but find them listed by White Oak Nursery, up near Canandaigua. My local nursery stocks them, as perhaps someone retail near you does (or can get them for you if you ask, as they are in commerce in landscape size finally).

  17. Ted says:

    The native yellow flowered woodland shrub I really really covet is Dirca palustris, aka leatherwood. Every aspect just speaks of elegance. Apparently it’s very difficult to propagate – the last time I saw it for sale it was $250.00 for a #2 pot.

    I see it growing on the roadsides in Northern Wisconsin regularly, but very locally. So far I’ve resisted pulling over for one.

  18. margaret says:

    It’s gorgeous and going on my planting list for next spring! I really like witch hazels which you mention in the other article but hadn’t heard of this. Hopefully I can find it.

  19. Mary says:


    Do you know if you can prune a spicebush into a hedge? I know, I know it has a beautiful form, but I am looking for a privet alternative for a shady spot where deer browse frequently and spicebush fits the bill in every way except size. Can I keep it to 3′ wide?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary. It’s one of those shrubs that looks better when cut to the ground versus shorn partway, but it won’t die whatever you do to it…that I can nearly assure you: Once, years ago, I asked my neighbor (who has a chainsaw) to cut down a large dying shrub for me (not the spicebush). I was out when he came to do it. Guess what he cut to the ground? Yup, the spicebush. It grew right back. I do think it’s probably inclined to be *way* too big for the 3-foot allotment. If you want to try anyhow, I’d cut out the unwanted stems at the base, not by cutting halfway into the branches.

  20. Naomi Sachs says:

    One of my faves, especially for deer-riddled landscapes. One of the first shrubs to bloom in the woodland understory (subtly, as you say), with perky little red berries in fall that contrast nicely with that brilliant yellow foliage. Yum. And I like that they are easily pruned for more sculptural effects and for tight spaces. I use it often in my designs. But alas: I don’t have any yet in my own garden! Maybe next year.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Naomi, a fellow lover of the spicebush. Another week or so here and mine will all be peak. Love this plant, as do the wildlife. See you soon again, I hope.

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