I love forsythia. The word flows. It sounds like the aroma of an exotic perfume. This ordinary, yellow, blooming shrub is a herald of spring. The daffodils erupt first, but the forsythia is bigger, bolder and brighter.
Growing up in the Sonora desert of Arizona, I don’t remember this colorful trumpeter. There were the majestic saguaro, the ordinary pear and rounded barrel cacti. The plant to step around was the jumping cholla. It was the prickliest and hence the most dangerous to hiking Scouts. It was also flammable as demonstrated by the forenamed Scouts.
It was not until my family moved to North Carolina for pediatric training that I became aware of the brilliant member of the olive family. For a boy from the desert, the Piedmont was amazing. It was as if we had a national forest in our backyard. I remember the first spring in this verdant wonderland. There were rhododendron, violet azaleas and the magical dogwood tree. But they were never as magnificent as the forsythia.
My mother, already a widow of many years, would come to visit. But it was less of a visit and more of a work assignment. Reared on a small, poor farm and accustomed to labor, she would strike out into the wooded jungle like Stanley looking for Livingston. She would return to the house with this glowing look of victory having, as she said, “Just freed the forsythia from the choking vines.”
It was from my mom that I first heard the name of the burning bush in our backyard forest glen. Forsythia.
Knowing it was my mother who told me about this plant makes it particularly warmly welcomed each new year. Mom’s childhood was not easy, and she would speak occasionally of her family’s hardships. But this simple collection of sticks, leaves and petals must have been one pleasure of her childhood that she remembered with fondness.
When a mother teaches her child about the world, it becomes more than a lesson in botany or geology. There is a merging of the facts and the feelings. Love of earth mixes with the love of being held and hugged.
Johann Wolfgane von Goethe said, “You see what you know.” But there is a corollary, “You see what you feel.”
I know it is spring because the forsythias are blooming. I know my mother loved me because I know the name, forsythia. Feelings show us symbols. In this plant there is the seasonal course of time. Blossoms arise and then fall to the ground. We are not always brilliant, and we don’t live forever, but there is a belief of immortal return and resurrection.
When the petals blow away, the plant continues to create new leaves and stems. There is growth that is not seen because it is slow and steady like many gifts in us. We have to be patient to practice and train our abilities. Trimming and disciplining shape both beautiful bushes and more self-governable characters.
There is also the acceptance that we are not alone, and we all contribute, but all differently. The forsythia isn’t solitary in the garden. There is the contrast of its yellow with the greens and the reds and browns of March. We are all elements of a system of life. The air, soil and water are critical for their survival. We receive their unsolicited gift of oxygen. For our mutual survival, we need to gift back a clean earth.
This time of the year is life renewing for not only the plants but for us. The darkness of winter suppresses photosynthesis but also blinds the neurons that help regulate our day and light rhythms. Spring is a seasonal preamble to the summer sun. It illuminates our minds’ synchronization with our internal circadian cycles. The treatment for the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder is light and forsythias.
So watch for forsythias, but be careful of the chollas.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a practicing pediatrician for 30 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].