Forsythia harvest, Jan. 20, 4:20 p.m., 16 degrees F. Photo donated.

NATURE’S TURN: Flowers and forage for mid-winter holidays

Forsythia, and many other woody stems. their winter buds fully formed, can be “forced” to flower any time after they have undergone freezing weather

January 27 – February 9, 2020

Mount Washington — Last week, when the heat of the day at mid-afternoon was a chill 16 degrees Fahrenheit, I set off on a mile-long walk to a feral stand of forsythia. Bright sun, a few inches of newly fallen snow, overarching blue sky and occasional sonorous gusts of wind in the woods echoed in my stride. Having promised to bring a vase of spring flowers to a party in two weeks, I was compelled to cut forsythia stems immediately to give them time to bloom in the warm indoors before the appointed day.

A hardy landscape shrub native to China, forsythia often marks long-disappeared home sites. The plants are not widely considered invasive, although they do persist where planted. The shrubs that I trim every year grow along the roadside, clearly the remnants of a border hedge that has not spread beyond its footprint. They are a cascading variety, with long, arching, yellowish woody stems with opposite buds. Forsythia cultivars vary from dwarf to erect, 10 feet tall forms.

Forsythia buds after a week in a warm to cool house. Lazure wall painting by Robert Logsdon. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Forsythia – and many other woody stems – their winter buds fully formed, can be “forced” to flower any time after they have undergone freezing weather; the earlier in the season they are brought in, the longer the time to bloom. In a horticultural context, forcing is a gentle art.

When pruning stems to grow in water indoors, choose growth about a quarter to half an inch in diameter replete with many twigs and flower buds. Prune close to where each offshoot originates from a larger branch. To facilitate water uptake, make diagonal cuts before placing the stems in containers of water, and split the base of large stems with a 1-inch vertical cut. Use enough water to cover several inches of stem. Keep as warm as possible for quick blooms. Cool the bouquet to slow down bloom time or to keep flowers bright longer. After a week, re-cut stems and change the water. See Resources for more information.

Beet borscht: stored garden beets, onions and garlic; fresh-dug carrots. Jan. 21, 10:53 a.m. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Sunburst yellow blossoms of forced forsythia on the dining table with a bowl of deep red beet borscht are a harmonious match to mark this turning point of winter to spring. Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, marks halfway to spring. Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, is even closer to the vernal equinox, which is March 19.

Next time, more about beets, including their particular interest for Valentine’s Day and why you might love or hate them.


Michael A. Dirr, “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia,” Timber Press, Portland, OR, 2020. Pages 157 – 159

Vegetable seeds, nearby biodynamic grower –
Interior wall painting by master painter Robert Logsdon –

February 14–17, Citizen Science: Great Backyard Bird Count: as little as 15 minutes and