OH FORSYTHIA! A Lesson in the Science of Life by Ann Butts

Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, with rows upon rows of houses, there wasn’t much room for a child of nature to study our native world.  I frequently sought refuge in any tree I could climb, or patch of tall grass, or even yes, sitting inside a yellow flowering forsythia bush. 

When the yellow flowers bloomed, I climbed inside the large forsythia bush in my yard and hid among the weathered old growth.  From my yellow cocoon, I watched people and traffic go by, relishing the thought that I could see them, but they could not see me. There was a warmth created by the yellow color I still feel today when I see a forsythia in bloom. I always thought this is why yellow rhymed with mellow. 

Very few people pick yellow as their favorite color, but I find I cannot live without it.  After all, yellow is the color of the sun, and we cannot live without the sun. But, actually all this talk about yellow and forsythia bushes is really to give me a reason to talk about another subject near to my heart – pollinators.

The memory of my yellow cocoon includes the sound of buzzing bees. Most kids were afraid of bees, but not me.  I loved watching them flit from blossom to blossom, sometimes practically climbing inside and crawling out with pollen covered legs.  I did not know then what I know now:  how important bees and all pollinators are to the world.  But I suspect my encounter with a forsythia bush and buzzing bees as a child was instrumental in my becoming a naturalist today.

Forsythia bushes are not a native species to our state or even to North America.  Their origins are in Eurasia and they were brought to our country in the early 1900’s as a good selection for a fast growing flowering hedge.  They have been nicknamed the “Easter Tree” because they bloom in early spring typically near the holiday.  The forsythia is named after the English horticulturalist, William Forsythe, who also called them “golden bells.”  These golden bells, even though not native, attract and feed bees in early spring.

There are 450 native species of bees in Missouri and over 4000 in North America. Most people are not aware that the honey bee, our state insect, is not actually a native, though honey bees have been living wild in Missouri for over 200 years.  Honey bees, native bees, and all pollinators are extremely important to us because they pollinate 75% of the plants we eat.

There is much discussion about whether to plant native or non-native plants for pollinators.  For me, the discussion is like this:  plant my favorite yellow plant, forsythias, or plant native species that are my favorite color.  Once I studied the issue, my answer was clear.  I love forsythia bushes, but I love the thought I am helping protect natural habitats and native species even more.

Missouri has numerous yellow flowers for me to pick from, and many of these reside in my native garden.  A few of my favorites are black eyed susan, Missouri primrose, and coreopsis.  But, to really help all pollinators, I know I should have a good variety of colors, sizes and shapes.  Planting native species lets me accomplish two things; I provide habitat and food for pollinators, and I grow plants that are more resilient.   Native species adapt better to our climate and soils, and they require less watering and fertilization. 

Through my love of a non-native bush, forsythia, I learned to love the color yellow.  And through my love of the color yellow, I learned to plant native species to help pollinators.  That’s what I call learning from the science of life. Life lessons can be harsh or merciful.  I don’t want to wake up one day to a headline reading, “Last of the Pollinators Have Disappeared from the Planet!” I like to eat too much.  So, for me, I still yearn for a yellow forsythia bush in my yard, but when I see my garden of native plants thriving, I know I have achieved a higher purpose.

Photos by Karen Garver and Ann Butts

Ann Butts has been a member of the Chert Glades Chapter of Missouri Master Naturalists since 2005.  She loves "thinking about nature, learning about nature, and respecting nature," through Master Naturalist activities. You can find her photography website and nature blog under Natural Thoughts Photography and Natural Thoughts Blog. 

Posted on March 24, 2017 .