Forcing Buds for Cold Weather Color

Julie Falk
Adams County Master Gardener

One of the joys of spring and summer gardening is bringing fresh flowers into the house. They add beautiful color to the indoors, and help us feel rewarded for our labors. During the cold weather months, we often feel the lack of blooms in the home. There is an easy way, however, for the dormant trees and shrubs of winter to provide fresh blossoms. Itís called ďforcingĒ branches.

The spring-blooming trees and shrubs set their flower buds in the autumn. They require at least eight weeks of cold outdoor temperatures under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
So beginning in January, depending on the mildness of the particular winter, we can gather branches and follow the process that forces them to bloom indoors. The basic procedure is the same for all the spring-blooming species.

Prune out the branches you have selected for forcing. These will generally be young branches with lots of large flower buds, and they are cut at least 12 inches long. Make a few slits in the bottom of the stem, perhaps in a cross or star pattern, to enhance water absorption. Then place the branches in a bucket of lukewarm water immediately, and bring them into the house. The branches should be kept at about 60-65 degrees so they donít warm up too quickly. Also, indoor heating may be too drying for the branches, so misting can be helpful. Dr. Leonard Perry at the University of Vermont Extension recommends soaking the branches in a tub overnight for overall water absorption, which encourages emergence from dormancy.

While the forcing procedure is uniform, the choice of species and their timing is more particular. For cutting in January, branches from Cornelian cherry, witch hazel and forsythia are preferred for their flowers. Poplar and willow produce drooping catkins rather than blossoms, but are valued for flower arrangements. They take from one to three weeks for blooms to emerge, depending on the species.

February is a good time to choose red maple, quince, cherries, and even azaleas late in the month. These all produce flowers, and for catkins we can consider alder, birch or pussy willow. Red mapleís droopy flowers are followed by opening of tiny bronze leaves, which can also be quite beautiful. It will take between two and four weeks for these buds to open. When March blows in, we can turn to choices like hawthorns, honeysuckle, apples and crabapples, flowering dogwood, lilacs and spirea. We can force catkins from the oaks in March. Most of these will bloom in two to three weeks, but a few can take up to five weeks (hawthorn, dogwood and lilac).

Since we live in an orchard area, it is useful to note that fruit trees force very well. Peach and cherry flower before the leaves come out, so they are prized for their striking appearance in arrangements. Once your flower buds show color, they are ready for display. Floral preservatives that are available from garden stores or florists can help to extend the life of the blossoms. They should be kept in bright, but indirect, light. Sometimes moving them to a cooler place at night, perhaps 40 to 60 degrees, will increase their colorful lifespan. Iím already scanning the yard for varieties to force in my effort to bring spring a little earlier. I hope you can enjoy this method of bringing nature indoors as well.

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