People often confuse me with George Clooney, so I know exactly how winter jasmine feels. Just because it's a shrub with pretty yellow flowers, novice gardeners mistake it for forsythia. Read this absolutely compelling story and you'll never make that embarrassing mistake again.

How to Distinguish Winter Jasmine from Forsythia

1. Bloom Time -- Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) blooms earlier. Although unseasonably mild winter weather may coax forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) into mid-winter bloom, it usually waits until late winter and very early spring -- late February through April in most areas. Winter jasmine stays true to its name, blooming in winter. Right now, it's in full bloom in Alabama, brightening up the fourth straight day of gloomy, rainy weather that makes you wish you were a mushroom.

2. Stem Color -- This is the easiest key to recognize. First-year stems of winter jasmine are bright green. They make they shrub appear evergreen in winter, even though it's leafless then -- a nice feature in my view. Forsythia stems are light yellowish brown.

3. Plant Shape -- Winter jasmine forms a trailing, cascading mound about 4 feet high and 5 to 7 feet wide. This makes it perfect for spilling over the edge of a wall or covering a bank. The stems root where they touch the ground, so the shrub controls erosion well. Most forsythias, on the other hand, sport upright, arching branches that without some grooming can look like Cher with a super hair-frizz. Forsythias also grow much larger, about 8 to 10 feet high and 10 to 12 feet wide. Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) resembles winter jasmine in form and is best used the same way, but it gets just as big as other forsythias.

4. Flower Show -- Forsythia wins this hands-down. When it's in full bloom, no shrub on Earth can beat its glorious golden display, which is why every person in America who can grow one has grown one at some point in their life. That doesn't mean winter jasmine is a slacker, however. It's just that forsythia blooms all at once and it show lasts about a week. The flowers of winter jasmine open over a period of 6 to 8 weeks, so you get fewer at one time, but a much longer display. The blooms aren't fragrant, unfortunately, but neither are those of forsythia.

Growing Tips

Winter jasmine is a fast grower that's easy, easy, easy. It tolerates almost any well-drained soil and suffers no serious disease or insect pests. Cuttings root quickly almost any time of year. It'll take sun or shade, but flowers more heavily in sun. Like forsythia, it blooms on last year's growth, so don't prune it until immediately after it finishes blooming. You can cut it back hard if you need to. Most garden centers in the South sell it (it's hardy through Zone 6), but if you can't find it locally, a good mail-order source is Woodlander's Nursery (www.woodlanders.net).

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