May the Force Be With You
For a fragrant and colorful preview of spring weeks before winter releases its icy grip on the landscape, try your hand at forcing branches from your favorite flowering trees and shrubs into early bloom. Simply put, forcing is a technique that supplies branches with springlike conditions, tricking them into thinking that it is time to produce leaves and flowers. The time to cut branches for forcing is usually from mid-January through early March, after the plant has completed its dormant period. Use sharp pruning shears to cut several well-budded shoots that are about the diameter of a pencil and about a foot or two long. Because late winter is the ideal time to prune most trees and shrubs, you can shape them as you harvest your future bouquets.
To break dormancy and initiate the flowering process, completely soak the severed shoots in a tub of warm water for three to four hours; then recut the stems on a diagonal and stand them in a bucket of cold water so that the bottom one quarter of each stem is submerged. To mimic spring conditions, keep the branches in a cool room (about 60° to 65°F/16° to 18°C), out of direct sunlight. When the buds start to swell, move them to a warmer, sunnier location. Change the water every day or two and recut the stems once per week. Blossoms and leaves should appear in one to six weeks, depending on the variety of the plant and the time of year.
Early-blooming plants are the easiest to force; the closer to their natural blooming time branches are cut, the sooner they will flower. Good choices for beginners are forsythia, spirea, witch hazel, honeysuckle, and flowering quince. Fruit trees like apple, peach, and cherry also are good candidates, as are dogwood, hawthorn, and crab apple. For an interesting effect, try forcing plants with colorful leaves like Japanese maple and purple-leaf sand cherry.
Forced branches are a natural for creating artistic arrangements or just filling a vase. Arrange them before the buds fully open to avoid damaging the delicate flowers and to add to your pleasure in watching the flowers open. The compliments that you will receive for your display of spring flowers in the dead of winter may just have you taking one bough after another.