Forcing Flowering Branches
Bring the joy of nature indoors this winter
As Richard Bradley wrote in 1724 in The Gentleman’s and Gardener’s Kalendar, “All vegetables of our climate seem now to sleep; the Days are short, and every little warmth from the Sun makes every Curious Lover of Gardens wish for the Spring.”
Nearly three hundred years later, we still seek creative ways to bring nature’s beauty and fragrance into our homes during the winter. With gray skies, howling winter winds and snowstorms always a possibility at this time of year, it’s little wonder that many of us find ourselves yearning for warmer, sunnier months when nature is at its peak.
Science is now proving what our ancestors knew instinctively: flowers lift the spirits. Indeed, according to a 2006 behavioral research study conducted jointly by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, flowers may help cure the winter blues.
Participants in the study placed flowers where they spent most of their time at home, especially first thing in the morning, such as the kitchen. The flowers not only improved their overall moods, but the participants’ happiness and enthusiasm carried over into their work lives as well. Many even reported feeling more compassionate towards others. The study further demonstrated that after only a few days around flowers, participants were less anxious and more positive about their lives.
In reviewing the findings, lead researcher Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., said, “As a psychologist, I’m particularly intrigued to find that people who live with flowers report fewer episodes of anxiety and depressed feelings. Our results suggest that flowers have a positive impact on well-being.”
Perhaps that is one reason why gardeners and others have long “forced” flowering branches in winter to behave like it is spring. Before you think of this as plant abuse, rest assured that the procedure is actually quite gentle. And the result? Fragrant, flowering branches inside your home from a few weeks to more than a month earlier than they would have bloomed outdoors.
The Dirt On Forcing Flowers
Here’s how Mother Nature makes this possible: spring-blooming trees and shrubs have formed flower buds by the previous autumn. Once these plants satisfy their need for a dormant period—typically eight weeks of cold weather below 40°F—they can bloom early under the right conditions. After January 1st, you can typically start cutting branches, but in a mild year, wait until after the 15th of January.
Look for healthy, young branches with lots of flower buds; these tend to be larger than the leaf buds (see the sidebar for favorite flowers to force). When in doubt, cut open a few buds to look inside. For fruit trees, select branches with many spurs (the short side shoots that bear the flowers).
Remember to shape your shrub or tree carefully as you cut. You are affecting the plant’s spring display, so pick branches with an eye to the overall effect of the pruning. To avoid leaving stubs, cut one-quarter inch above side buds or branches. Select branches at least six inches to several feet long. Longer stems are easier to use in floral displays.
Once you bring the branches indoors, make a slanted cut above your previous cut. The old advice was to smash the ends of the stems to improve water intake. But smashing the stems too hard can cause the opposite effect. Instead, cut slits across the bottom of the stem in a crisscross pattern before placing the stems in water.
If you cut branches outside when temperatures are below freezing, immerse them in cool water indoors for several hours or overnight. Otherwise, the buds might burst open prematurely. You’ll probably need to use your bathtub for this step. If temperatures are above freezing when you cut the branches, you can skip this part.
Store the branches upright in a big bucket. Add warm water (110°F) to three inches above the stems, and let sit for approximately 30 minutes. Then fill the container with water and place it somewhere that is partially shaded and cool (60–65°F). Low humidity can cause buds to fall off, so mist the branches and keep them away from heaters.
When the buds begin to show color, move the branches into a room with lots of indirect light. Avoid direct sunlight, as this can cause the buds to drop. At night, move your arrangements into a cool room (40–60°F) to keep them lasting longer.
Favorite Flowers to Force
For a steady stream of blossoms during the winter, force different types of branches at different times.
Forsythia (Forsythia): Easy-to-force branches with yellow flowers in one to three weeks. Consider Forsythia x intermedia ‘Golden Times’ with variegated yellow and green foliage.
Poplar (Populus): Long-lasting, drooping catkins show in three weeks.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis): Fragrant yellow blossoms arrive in a week.
Quince (Chaenomeles): Red to orange flowers bloom after four weeks.
Cherry (Prunus): In two to four weeks, expect aromatic white or pink flowers.
Pussy Willow (Salix): Fun, furry flowers appear in one to two weeks and are easily dried after blooming.
Apple and Crabapple (Malus): Red, pink and white blossoms reward you after two to four weeks.
Lilac (Syringa): Displays their many colors after four to five weeks.
Mock Orange (Philadelphus): Very fragrant white flowers appear after four to five weeks.
To keep forced flowers looking fresh, whip up a batch of homemade flower preservative.
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon household chlorine bleach
Mix with 1 quart water
Source for preservative:
Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service