Forcing Branches
for Winter Bouquets
Each year, spring doesn't seem to come early enough. While we can't do much to hasten it along outside, we can bring stems of flowering trees and shrubs indoors for an early preview. Forcing branches is quite simple and very rewarding. There is a good chance that a number of the more easily forced tree and shrub species are already growing in your yard.
A common but favorite shrub for forcing is forsythia, with its cheerful, daffodil yellow blooms. Cornelian cherry dogwood is another source of a golden yellow color. Both can be brought into bloom in two to three weeks. For a softer yellow, try the wiry-leaved Scotch broom. Chinese witch hazel comes in either yellow or orangery-red, and its early blooms would be a welcome addition to almost any landscape.

Japanese and red maple branches combine nicely in arrangements where a touch of red is warranted. The small flowers and new leaves range from crimson to burgundy. Other deciduous trees that may be of interest in arrangements but are often overlooked are birch, hickory, poplar and oak. Catkins form in two to three weeks, mostly in shades of gold, brown and green. Oak catkins may cause allergy symptoms in some individuals, so be forewarned.

Apples and crabapples are also favored for forcing. Flowers may be white, pink or vibrant magenta, and many are delicately scented. Doubles hold their petals longer than singles. They will bloom two to four weeks after being cut.

Other deciduous shrubs that respond well to forcing are pussy willows, flowering quince, spirea (especially "Bridal Wreath"), mock orange, fothergilla, lilacs and honeysuckle. This year, I am going to try forcing my Siberian pea shrub.

At least eight weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees F is generally necessary for a plant to meet its dormancy requirements. This is usually by the end of January. As a rule of thumb, the closer it is to a plant's natural flowering period, the less time it takes to force a branch into bloom. Earliest bloomers can be collected in February, while later flowering species such a s dogwoods, lilacs and apples should not be gathered until March.

One- to 2-foot branches are a good size for forcing. Select the warmest part of a mild winter day to do your collecting. Cut branches as you would if pruning, making clean, singled cuts and cutting back to the main stem or a secondary branch. Take into account the plants natural shapes when removing ranches to force.

For better water absorption, some advocate splitting the bottom inch or so of the stem. From a personal standpoint, I find this more an exercise in blood letting and usually get good results even if I do not slit the stems. After bringing the branches inside, submerge them overnight in a a large bucket of warm water. Warm water is more readily absorbed by the cut branches than cold water.

The next day, recut the stems and place in clean vases filled with warm water mixed with a floral preservative. Just the bottoms of the branches need to be set in the water. Change the water every few days, cutting the stems each time.

Place the branches in a cool, dimly lighted spot until you notice the buds beginning to swell. At this point, move the branches to a brighter location, but out of direct sunlight.

Enjoy these early harbingers of spring. The real thing won't be far behind!

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Article from Dawn Pettinelli
UConn Home and Garden Center