The Heart of New England
Forcing Branches
into Early Bloom
by Marcia Passos Duffy  

While "spring" may have officially arrived we all know the reality of living in
northern New England: it’s not
really the spring season yet.  (We still have to get
through
mud season!)  

While we can already see stirrings of daffodils peaking up out of the ground,
we’re still weeks away from those true harbingers of warmer weather –- apple
blossoms, forsythia, lilacs.  

But, don’t despair.  You can easily “force” branches of your favorite bloom inside
your house –- and brighten your rooms (and mood) considerably.

Forcing: A Harsh Word for a Gentle Technique

“Forcing” branches
is a rather harsh word for a technique that I like to think as
“gentle coaxing” –-  it is persuading branches into believing that their time to
bloom has finally arrived.  

You can “coax” many different types of flowering shrubs and trees -– but timing
is everything.  First, the plant needs to be out of its dormancy phase (right now
most plants are).  Second, the closer the ornamental is to its real blooming time,
the less time you have to wait for forced blossoms.  For the best results,
remember to mimic springtime.  Warmth is important, but not too fast or the
flowers will get stunted and the colors faint.  Humidity is also important.

Here are some local favorites you might want to try:

Redbud
Flowering Quince
Flowering Dogwood
Hawthorn
Forsythia
Honeysuckle
Apple and Crabapple
European Pussy Willow
Spirea
Lilac

Guidelines for Forcing Branches

While forcing branches is simple to do, but there are a few guidelines for helping
the process along.

1.  Pick a day to cut branches when the temperature is above freezing. Forcing
can be done as soon as the plant is out of dormancy. This may be as early as mid-
January for forsythia and pussy willow.  However, for the more difficult to force
ornamental fruit trees (such as crabapple, apple and redbud) it's best to wait
until mid-March or longer.

2.   With pruning shears or a sharp knife cut branches that have numerous
flower buds
(you can tell flower buds apart from leaf buds by the larger size of
the flower bud).  Cut the branches like you are pruning the tree or bush –- don’t
disfigure the ornamental (you want it to still look pretty when the time comes for
it to truly bloom).

3.    After you bring the branches inside, split open stem bottom with sharp
scissors about 1 inch
(if it's a woody stem, gently mash the ends with a hammer).  
This will help the branches absorb water.  You may also want to re-cut the
bottoms a bit to ensure that air hasn’t blocked the cut end.  Remove any buds or
twigs that will be under water to prevent rot.

4.     Place in a vase of warm (not hot!) water.  Place in a cool location away from
direct sunlight.  Higher temperatures will cause the buds to develop rapidly, but
you’ll sacrifice its size, color and quality. Branches need light for forcing, but not
direct sunlight. Heat from direct sun is too intense and often drying. Remember,
they need springtime (not summer) conditions to bloom.  You can also mist them
occasionally to prevent drying.  Add a floral preservative to help control
bacteria.  Change water 2-3 times a week.

5.    Forsythia and pussy willow generally take only one to three weeks to force.
Flowering fruits like apple, crabapple and cherry can take up to four weeks. And
lilacs can take five.

6.    Sometimes the buds are stubborn and take longer to open.  And
occasionally some buds don’t respond even to the tenderest loving care … but
you can almost be certain you’ll be rewarded with bright green foliage for your
efforts.  

7.    Once the blossoms are out, you can move the branches to a sunnier
location.
They’ll last longer if you keep them away from heat vents at night.

About the author: Marcia Passos Duffy is a freelance writer and the publisher/ editor of
The Heart of New England online magazine.
 
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