Why wait for spring when you can experience it early indoors? Flowering trees and shrubs are a ‘natural’ for forcing. Why? Because their buds formed last year in late summer before they went dormant. All you have to do is cut some branches, bring them inside and follow the directions below.
HARVESTING THE FORCE OF NATURE
They may set their buds early, but spring-flowering trees and shrubs need a period of winter dormancy in order to bloom. By late winter, however, shorter nights are already encouraging them to resume growing. Generally, this means that by late February or early March it’s safe to cut some branches for forcing. In no time, you’ll be enjoying a profusion of spring flowers indoors.
Forcing branches can take anywhere between 2 to 5 weeks, depending on the species. Early bloomers such as forsythia, star magnolia, quince, witch hazel and pussy willow are usually the fastest to flower at approximately 2 weeks. Cherry and dogwood tree branches, however, can take up to 4 weeks to develop, depending on when you cut them. In general, trees take longer than shrubs to force.
HINT: The closer to a plant’s natural bloom time you cut the branches, the less time it will take to force flowers indoors.
A GUIDE TO FORCING FLOWERING BRANCHES
Start by selecting a few healthy, medium-sized branches with lots of plump buds that look ready to open. Cut the branches from the tree or shrub using a pair of pruners. Make sure to cut on a diagonal, which creates a greater surface area for water.
Cornus alba buds
To protect your flowering branches from rot, remove any twigs or buds from the bottom 6 inches of the stem. Then do one of the following: either slit the branches in several directions at the ends or mash the branch ends against a hard surface. Both methods will cause the base of the branch to splay out and encourage it to draw up more water. It will also keep the branches fresher longer.
Submerge the branches overnight in cool to lukewarm water. (A bathtub works great.) This enables the branches and buds to more rapidly absorb water and to begin breaking their winter dormancy.
The furry buds of pussy willow
The following day, remove the branches from their bath and place them upright in a bucket or vase. Next, add warm water no higher than a few inches. Place the branches in a cool location away from direct sunlight. (Warm temperatures may cause the buds to develop too rapidly or fall off.) To limit bacterial growth, make sure to change the water every few days.
Once the buds begin to show color, arrange the branches in a container and place them in a bright spot away from direct sunlight. This will encourage the best flower color to develop. Make sure to keep them away from heat sources. As you might expect, spring-flowering branches bloom longer in cooler temperatures.
FORCING BRANCHES CAN SPAWN NEW PLANTS
Occasionally when forcing flowering branches, some will unexpectedly start sprouting roots. You can grow a new plant by removing the branch from water when the roots are approximately ½ inch long. Pot it up and trim the branch down to about 6 to 8 inches. When warmer weather arrives, plant it outdoors.
MOST POPULAR BRANCHES FOR FORCING
Below are some of the more popular flowering branches for forcing and the time it takes to force them indoors. Bear in mind that this represents the long end of the scale, assuming you start cutting your branches in February. Remember, you can shorten the forcing time by harvesting the branches closer to the plant’s natural bloom period.
Embellish your arrangements with foliage from large-leaved evergreens like mahonia, aucuba or magnolia for a stunning composition Just as in nature, these species are natural complements to all spring-flowering branches.