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Forsythia intermedia (Oleaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)

Forsythia intermedia, aka Spring glory (Oleaceae ).

Suburbs have become worldwide extensions of cities during the past century. Their inhabitants plant this flashy shrub, perhaps in the hope of giving their environment a more natural look? To quote from Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike the novelist of suburban lives and their adulteries,

‟when Rabbit prunes the forsythia in his garden, … it does not do to be tenderhearted, the harder you cut back now, the more crammed with glad yellow blossoms the stubby branches become in the spring.‟ 

These ‟glad yellow blossoms‟ are indeed familiar to many, heralding a promise of spring, that endures for weeks. The bright yellow flowers, blooming in the spring even before the leaves appear, owe their color to carotenoid pigments and to the absence of anthocyanins in the petals.

Forsythia were originally known as lian qiao in Mandarin Chinese. This name refers to the fruit resembling the cupule of the lotus (lian is the name of the lotus) and to the branches rising (qiao means to lift up), before the weight of flowers and fruit bends them down.

The natural Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa (the derived F. intermedia in the West is a hybrid raised for gardening) is written as 连翘 in Chinese ideograms. The fruit, harvested when fully ripe, was considered in the Chinese pharmacopeia as one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Chinese medicine has used it for over 4,000 years. I’ll spare you the long list of the numerous ailments it is reputed to cure. But it continues to keep pharmacologists busy, intent upon accurately ascertaining some of its very real virtues.

The name under which we know lian qiao in the West stems from one of the numerous instances of borrowing from China, at times when Europeans had much to learn from the more highly civilized Chinese Empire. Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828), a Swedish botanist, first formally described the plant in a Western publication in 1780.

William Forsyth ( 1707-1804) was a Scottish botanist and horticulturist. Appointed in 1779 head gardener to King George III, he moved from Scotland to London and was a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

Borrowing from China? Stealing from China would be more accurate.

Lian qiao came to England by way of a botanist and horticulturist, also a Scotsman, based in India, Robert Fortune (1812-1880). He is most famous for having introduced tea into India: he successfully smuggled tea from China to India in 1848 on behalf of the British East India Company.

Following the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, Fortune was sent by the Horticultural Society to illegally collect plants from China. The plant we know as Forsythia, one of many that Fortune stole, was thus named to honor William Forsyth, for his having been a founder of the Horticultural Society.

Fortune was in China during the period 1848-1851. His mission was to collect clandestinely interesting plants and to bring them back with him. His voyages and thefts brought about the introduction to Europe, via India, of many new, exotic, beautiful flowers and plants. There is some justice: lian qiao actually bears both Forsyth’s and Fortune’s names, it is officially known as Forsythia suspensa Fortunei.

The irony is that, even though the larceny was made for its medicinal uses, this plant in the WesternHemisphere is now exclusively decorative.