This week’s plant for Wild Edible Wednesday is Forsythia… in case you were wondering (you probably weren’t), it’s one of those plants that goes by its common name and Latin name interchangeably. Forsythia has been a well-known and well-loved ornamental plant for generations, but is also a naturalized foreigner that can be foraged as a wild edible or medicinal plant at a critical time of year. And although it’s not a deep woods edible, it’s still a very common plant and well worth knowing.
The Forsythia genus consists of approximately a dozen species, all but one of which are native to far East Asia. F. intermedia is the most common species in cultivation. The temperate and subtropical areas of China and Japan are this plant’s home turf, but since the 1800s, it’s been planted as a landscape ornamental all over the world. Forsythia’s introduction to the Western world was made by plant hunter and professional adventurer Robert Fortune, who you’ll remember if you read our post on Leatherleaf Mahonia a few months ago. This is the man who singlehandedly upended global commerce and made trillions of dollars for the British East India company by smuggling the first tea plants out of China… and he also brought us this cheery early-blooming shrub. Forsythia is a staple of gardens everywhere, but especially in the South. It’s hard to drive anywhere in Georgia in March and not see forsythia bushes working alive with bright yellow flowers. For people such as myself who hate winter, forsythia is always a welcome sign that spring is on the way soon, even if it’s still nasty outside.
Forsythia is a woody deciduous shrub, growing from 3’ to 8’ tall, and up to 8’-10’ wide for a single plant. However, left untrimmed, the long, arching branches will eventually make contact with the ground, take root, and form a new forsythia bush. In this manner, it can create huge, dense thickets over time. Forsythia has light brown bark with small, knobby nodes, and dark green, finely serrated lanceolate leaves 2”-5” long. It’s got great fall color, which is another good way to recognize it when it turns gold, purple, and orange after the first frost. Obviously, the easiest way to recognize this plant is by its flowers. Bright yellow with many fine, thin petals, they are in full bloom when little else is alive, and stand in stark contrast to the dead gray branches around them. Wild forsythias bear fruit – a bright yellow fleshy berry followed by a very nondescript, spade-shaped seed pod that’s about half an inch long. Most forsythias that are in cultivation or naturalized in this country are hybrids that don’t bear fruit. If you see them, they were planted, or spread by branches taking root. Forsythias can be found anywhere humans have been. This isn’t a plant you’ll find deep in pristine wilderness, but rather abandoned homestead sites, unkempt old yards, and of course planted in civilized areas. Many times, forsythia is a great way to locate where old homeplaces used to be. They’ll hang around long after the house has collapsed and disintegrated into the ground. So if you find a random forsythia bush way out in the woods, bring a metal detector and a shovel back with you and see if you can find anything cool.
As an edible, forsythia is a Godsend during this time of year. If you do much foraging, you know that late January through the end of March is an extremely lean time. Nearly all of the acorns and hickory nuts from fall are gone, the mainstay winter edibles such as plantain, dandelion, and others have been heavily browsed by the deer, and most of the reliable spring edibles like chickweed and clover haven’t come out yet. So if you can find it, forsythia fills a critical gap. While they’re not particularly nutrient-rich or calorie-dense, forsythia blooms, leaf buds, and very young leaves are all edible. This can make all the difference in the world in a true survival situation. An added benefit is that forsythias are usually large bushes, and they’re rarely alone. So although it might take a lot of leaf buds to fill you up, there are generally a lot for the taking. If you’re not in a survival situation, forsythia flowers make a really unique salad garnish. I’d be sparing with them though, they’re kind of bitter. Leaf buds and young leaves can also be added to soups and stews or cooked as a potherb in addition to being eaten off the bush. Forsythia has no deadly mimics, but you’d be wise to stay away from mature leaves. They contain a glycoside known as phillyrin, and the jury’s still out on exactly how bad it is for you. Best avoid it.
Medicinally, forsythia has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese herbal healing. The fruit, called lian qiao in China, is used internally for chills, fevers, headaches, muscle soreness, and expelling internal parasites, and externally for burns, cuts, scrapes, infections, and rashes. If that sounds like an anti-inflammatory, you’re right. Several studies in the early 2000s concluded that forsythia fruit does indeed have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts of the fruit are used commercially in products for treating acne, dandruff, and topical fungal infections. But most forsythias in America don’t fruit, right? Fear not. The flowers can be used for all of the same things. They are not as powerful as the fruit, but contain the same active compounds. Make a tea or decoction, and use internally for drinking or externally as a wash to get the same effects.
Forsythia is pretty cool, but the town of Forsyth, Georgia is absolutely wild about it… wild enough that they have an entire festival devoted to it every spring. We just missed it for this year, but mark your calendars for 2020. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s a great time. It’s been going on for decades, and features arts & crafts, live music, food, and a beauty pageant… basically all of the Southern festival staples.
Like Ginkgo a few months ago, forsythia isn’t one of those plants that needs to be a staple of your wild plant knowledge. It won’t be found deep in the woods (unless you happen upon an abandoned home site), and it isn’t highly nutritious, but it’s still worth knowing. You can never know too many useful plants, especially ones that can be utilized this critical time of year.
What about you? Do you have a forsythia in your yard? Have you ever eaten off it? Tell us in the comments!