Bring spring indoors with flowering branches

February 05, 2008|By ANNETTE IPSAN

If you're like me, you get a little blue in the winter. Gardeners cry out for color, craving things that are green and alive.

Coaxing flowering branches to bloom early in your home is a wonderful antidote to the winter doldrums.

You can have armfuls of sunny forsythia, snow white spirea and pink cherry blossoms in just a few weeks. Best of all, the process of "forcing" branches is easy, requires no fancy tools and is perfect for beginners.

The secret to forcing branches to flower lies in tricking plants into thinking it's spring. Timing is everything. Buds need about eight weeks of chilling before they will produce flowers. So now - late January and February - is the perfect time.

Start by selecting the trees and shrubs you want to force to flower. Shrubs are easier to force than trees and forsythia is the easiest of all. But there are plenty of showy choices from crabapples to quince. I've listed a few candidates at the end of this column.


Using sharp pruners, clip 2- to 3-foot lengths of young, pencil-thick branches loaded with flower buds (flower buds are round and fat while leaf buds are smaller and pointed.) Make clean, angled cuts and avoid leaving stubs. While pruning, make your cuts count. Trim out crowded branches or ones that don't match the plant's natural form.

The newly cut branches need to absorb plenty of water. So, strip off the buds from the bottom few inches of each branch. Then, get a hammer. Yes, a hammer. Bash the ends of the branches a few times to maximize water absorption. I use an old cutting board to absorb the blows. If you prefer, you can make a two-inch slit in the end of each branch with a knife, but it's much less entertaining.

Now it's time to soften the buds by mimicking the cool, damp weather of spring. Start by giving the branches a good soak. Submerge them in tepid water in a bathtub for a few hours or overnight. Or, put the branches in a deep bucket of water and wrap them with wet newspapers or cover with a plastic bag.

After soaking the branches, put them in a container filled with a few inches of water. Place the container in a cool room to echo spring's mild temperatures.

Check the branches often. At least once a week, change the water and recut the stems. Mist the branches now and then to further the illusion of springtime rains. Enjoy the show as the buds get fatter and fatter.

The branches will flower in two to six weeks. The closer to their natural blooming time you cut branches, the earlier they will flower. When the buds tinge with color, it's time to arrange them in several inches of water in the containers you think will best complement their beauty.

Move the containers to a warmer room where you can enjoy the show. In a few days, the buds will burst into a riot of blooms to lift your spirits, impress your friends and enhance your dcor.

If you want a constant show of color, cut several branches from flowering shrubs and trees each week. Staggered cuttings can yield a continual display through the end of March.

To prolong their blooms, keep your flowering branches out of direct sunlight and change the water every few days. Choosing a cooler room for display or stashing them in a cooler room at night will help them last even longer.

Then, take heart. Spring is coming. And it's come to your home a bit earlier, thanks to the charm of flowering branches.

Suggested shrubs and trees for forcing:


Bridal wreath spirea - it takes two weeks to flower; description: small, white flowers in sprays

Deutzia - five weeks to flower; description: white flowers

Flowering almond - it takes three weeks to flower; description: delicate, pink flowers

Flowering quince - four weeks to flower; description: long-lasting salmon flowers

Forsythia - two weeks to flower; description: many yellow flowers

Lilac - four weeks to flower; description: large, fragrant clusters of purple, blue or white flowers

Mockorange - four weeks to flower; description: clusters of fragrant white blooms

Pussy willow - two weeks to flower; description: fuzzy white buds


Cherry - three weeks to flower; description: white or pink flowers in clusters

Crabapple - three weeks to flower; description: white, pink or red flowers clusters

Dogwood - five weeks to flower; description: white or pink long-lasting flowers

Magnolia - five weeks to flower; description: large white or pink flowers

Peach - four weeks to flower; description: pink flowers

Pear - four weeks to flower; description: white flowers in clusters

Redbud - two weeks to flower; description: tiny purple flower.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604, or by e-mail at

The Herald-Mail Articles