“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” Henry Van Dyke
Many cold-weary plant lovers can force branches for a taste of spring. Forcing branches indoors is a rewarding gardening project when it is still too cold to be digging in the dirt. Cut branches offer a sculptural simplicity in of themselves and provide stark arrangements with no need to embellish with other flowers or foliage. Forcing blooms out of these branches can fulfil a craving for color and fragrance now if Mother Nature is not obliging.
Forcing is possible because most ornamental shrubs and trees set their flower buds during the previous season. Once those buds have undergone a period of dormancy of at least 6 weeks of cold temperature, they can be ready to bloom. If you are trying your hand at forcing for the first time, forsythia is the easiest and almost always foolproof branch to force. Other good choices are quince, fothergilla, pussy willow, cherry, apple, lilac, red bud, red maple and magnolia. The guiding principle for all successful forcing is whether the tree or shrub is showing swollen buds. Every species will have its own timeline for breaking bud and this will vary by gardening zone.
When choosing branches to force, try something unexpected like red maple or beech. Up close, the foliage of the trees can be appreciated as the leaves unfurl in a way that is not possible from afar on the tree itself.
To force, simply choose long slender branches with buds on them. Cut on the diagonal near a junction and place in water out of direct sunlight. Change the water every couple of days to prevent bacterial growth, the main reason for failures. Some gardeners use a bit of bleach in their water, a tablespoon per gallon of water. If after 2 weeks the cut branches haven’t bloomed, then you either have a bacteria problem or cut the branches before the buds were set. Either way, just start over and try again.
With a long frigid spring in my area, I walked around my yard cutting whatever branches I could try to force for this blog post. I chose 7 trees/shrubs to experiment with.
Lilac showing swollen buds
My experimental forcing station: all cut branches in water, out of direct sun. A waiting game.
Back row, left to right: lilac, azalea, forsythia
Front row, left to right: red maple, red bud, fothergilla, viburnum
The forsythia blooming after just 5 days of forcing, perhaps the easiest of branches to force.
The gorgeous Red Bud in bloom after 10 days
A very fragrant lilac bloom emerges after 2 1/2 weeks! Be still my beating heart.
The azalea showing off some lovely blooms after 2 1/2 weeks
The red maple, fothergilla and viburnum had barely come out of dormancy after 2 weeks, with just a few leaves emerging. I hope to have inspired you to try forcing ornamental shrubs and trees where you live. Happy Spring, indoor and out!
Source: University of Delaware Cooperative Extension