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Ancient Medicine Meets Suburban Cliche: the Story of Forsythia

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I think we’ve gotten so used to forysthia we often forget to look at it. Some people are so bored by it, they don’t want to look at it.

But forsythia is worth looking at closely, for its ancient history and medicinal uses, and for its own sake in the present, paying special attention to how the light radiates through its massed petals. Forsythia makes a cheering blaze against a stormy sky, and a radiant force in sunlight.

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Forsythia, named for English plantsman William Forsyth, must have had many names before we got to it: it’s a longstanding staple of the Chinese materia medica (list of medicinal remedies). While we plant forsythia for the flowers, forsythia was probably originally cultivated as a medicinal plant (or maybe for both reasons; before the concept of ornamental gardens, people didn’t feel obliged to make that distinction). The medicinal part of forsythia is its inconspicuous fruit. It’s a traditional Chinese remedy for all kinds of overheating: toxins, fever, swollen lymph glands, flus, and other inflamations. It’s also used to relieve carbuncles (staph abscesses that go deeper and get larger than boils) .

If you want to experiment with forsythia fruit tea, pick the fruit while it’s green.  But that’s just beginning of the process. Chinese herbology, unlike European herbology, wasn’t interrupted by a few hundred years of practitioners being burned, tortured, and otherwise persuaded not to pursue their art. So Chinese herbology has had the time to develop highly complex ways of extracting active herbal ingredients. Here’s what one Chinese materia medica recommends for processing gardenia fruit: “The green fruit gathered in the period of White Dew (fifteenth solar term) is better than the yellow fruit picked in the period of Cold Dew (seventeenth solar term). The fruit is steamed, dried in the sun, and its seeds separated from the flesh.” (TCM Basics)
Combined with other herbs, forsythia fruit is part of formulas for a number of what the Chinese call heat-related conditions (interesting in a plant that’s famous for blooming while it’s still cold). Forsythia is contraindicated where there is deficient yin, or spleen disorders. Mixed with honeysuckle flowers and ground into a powder (yep, plain old ubiquitous Hall’s honeysuckle), forsythia fruit can be used for what western medicine calls upper respiratory tract infections, acute bronchitis, acute endometriosis, measles, acute tonsilities, encephalitis B, meningitis, and parotitis – as well as the ever-present flu.
The variety of forsythia that’s used medicinally is Forsythia suspensa, the weeping forsythia. I’m honestly not sure if the pictures on this post are F. suspensa or something else; it’s my neighbor’s bush, and it was there before she moved in, so she has no way of finding out. It isn’t a particularly weeping form, but there is a variety of F. suspensa, ‘Fortunei’ (most likely named after Robert Fortune, the Royal Horticulturalist Society’s plant collector in 1840s China) which is more upright, and F. suspensa does seem to be the popular choice for specimen (as opposed to hedge) planting. If there are any forsythia experts out there, please let me know.

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References:

The World in Your Garden, Camp, Boswell, and Magness, National Geographic Society, 1957

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons Complete Home Medical Guide, Montague Books, 1985

Sacred Lotus

TCM Basics

Your Nature, Your Health: Chinese Herbs in Constitutional Therapy, S. Dharmananda, Ph.D., Institute for Traditional Medicine and Preventive Health Care, 1986

Sunset Western Garden Book, Lane Magazine and Book Co., 1973 (there are many useful editions of this book)

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • gail April 6, 2009, 4:41 am

    Wow! I have a whole new appreciation for the big monster hedge in my front yard! Thank you! gail

  • Pomona Belvedere April 6, 2009, 1:58 pm

    Happy to help! I do think it’s interesting that, when you investigate even the most humble or boring plant, it tends to have a good story.

  • Karen - An Artist's Garden April 6, 2009, 4:01 pm

    Wow, this is so interesting, I will have to stop being so rude about Gail’s big monster hedge.
    K

  • Melanthia April 6, 2009, 9:50 pm

    This is so interesting. I had no idea. I just bought a forsythia because I just love the plant’s cheery habit.

  • Frances April 7, 2009, 3:17 am

    Oh Pomona, this is such a timely post. I am looking for the Chinese medicinal usages of the tree peony, P. ostii ‘White Phoenix’ whose name we just discovered. We have no forsythia either, but have helped our neighbor dig and transplant pieces to make a nice hedge on our shared property lines that I have been pruning to help with their shaping. Judicial pruning does seem to greatly enhance the beauty and flowering, but we might be cutting off the fruit with this action. You are such a wealth of information, Pomona, thanks!
    Frances

  • Pomona Belvedere April 7, 2009, 9:11 am

    Karen, I feel powerful indeed if my words can stop you making fun of Gail’s huge YELLOW hedge! Melanthia, I’m glad to see I’m not the only innocent in admiring forsythia’s cheerfulness. Frances, did you check out the TCM Basics link for peony? As it happens, I know that one use is for circulation and blood issues, but right offhand I’m not coming up with anything else.

  • cyd April 7, 2009, 2:05 pm

    Thank you Pomona! Mine has not bloomed yet and I have forgotten how beautiful it is. I did not know it bore fruit, that is very exciting. I hope I see the fruit this year, mine is a start from a neighbor about three years old. Cyd

  • Pomona Belvedere April 9, 2009, 9:22 am

    The fruit is not madly exciting, just small seedpods, but it is fun to look at a new aspect of any plant I think, no matter how humble. I like it that you have a passalong plant, it’s a nice way to keep things going, and you know that it will do well in your neighborhood.

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