By Samantha Burbach, Director of Education & Programming – 03/12/2021
Spring is on the horizon and the earliest blooming spring ephemerals are poking up to greet us. It may have you anxiously awaiting the bright yellow forsythia blooms and sweetly scented crabapple blossoms. Luckily, there’s no need to wait! Now is the time to cut winter branches to bring indoors to force into early bloom.
Spring flowering trees and shrubs produce their flower buds in the fall and winter, and patiently wait for warmer temperatures to break through dormancy and burst into bloom. Generally, by February or March, the flower buds of many spring flowering trees and shrubs are developed enough that we can cut the branches, bring them indoors to experience warmer temperatures, and they will bloom.
Forcing winter branches to bloom is simple and there are many trees and shrubs to try. The earlier the plant blooms in spring, the earlier you can cut branches from it, but the closer you wait to when it naturally blooms, the quicker it will open indoors. Vernal witchhazel, forsythia, and pussy willow are easy to force into bloom, taking one to three weeks, and can be collected as early as February. Branches that bloom later in spring, such as crabapple and cherry, can take up to four weeks to open so cutting them closer to their bloom period will help increase success.
It is best to cut branches on days when the temperature is above freezing. When choosing a branch to cut, look for new growth and plump flower buds (generally larger than leaf buds), as younger branches tend to flower better than mature branches. It is also important that you choose a branch that will not be missed from the tree/shrub’s overall appearance in the landscape.
Some good choices of trees and shrubs to try to force are vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis), forsythia (Forsythia), redbud (Cercis), dogwood (Cornus), pussy willow (Salix), crabapple (Malus), serviceberry (Amelanchier), flowering pear (Pyrus), and magnolia (Magnolia). While we mostly appreciate fruit trees, such as apple and peach, for their fruit in late summer or fall, their flowers are absolutely beautiful. It just so happens that late February into March is when we dormant prune fruit trees, so using those pruned branches for forcing indoors allows you to enjoy the flowers that you have already removed from the tree.
After cutting the branches, bring them indoors and soak in a tub full of warm water. Once submerged in the water, make a fresh cut one inch up from the original cut, and leave the branches in the water overnight. The next day, fill a vase or container with clean water and place the branches in the vase after removing any buds that will be under the water level and making another fresh cut. You can even add floral preservative to the water if you have it available.
Place the vase in a room that is about 60-70 degrees and out of direct sunlight to get the buds to start breaking dormancy. Mist the branches with water every day to keep them from drying out, and change the water in the vase every two to three days to prevent bacteria from building up.
Most flowering displays will last about one week, with temperature and sunlight playing a factor in how long they last. As with all cut flower arrangements, cooler temperatures will lengthen the life of the flower display and continue to change out the water every couple days to prevent bacteria.
Forcing winter branches to bloom is easy and brings spring to us a little earlier. If you have some flowering trees and shrubs on your property, cut a few branches and give this a try!