So many beautiful spring-flowering trees and shrubs have branches that can be forced early for a little indoor spring in late winter. The process is simple but forcing times vary from plant to plant. Fast-to-force branches are the most satisfying, and the color they bring to the table never disappoints. All you need are some shears, water, flower food, and a little patience.
The earliest flowering shrubs of the spring are often the best to choose. They typically only require short forcing times. Many of the early bloomers are fragrant as well as colorful, which helps them make an even more pronounced statement for table arrangements.
Some of the better common quick-blooming branches for forcing are golden Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia), fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.), pussy willows (Salix caprea), curly willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and bridal wreath spirea (Spiraea prunifolia), all of which will force in around two weeks. The branches of many popular flowers shrubs that bloom a little later, like Rhododendron, dogwood, cherry, and lilac, typically take more time to force, often between four and five weeks.
How and When to Harvest Branches
Branches only force well in late-winter when they have been outside and dormant for long enough through winter. Late January to February is the perfect window for harvest time.
When pruning branches, be sure to selectively remove those that should be pruned off anyway. That way, you will be killing two birds with one stone. Crossing, old, or out-of-place branches are the best to prune off and bring inside.
Cut branches with sharp, bypass pruners as opposed to anvil types that crush branch tissue. (I like Felco 2 classic pruners.) Clean cuts will enable branches to take up water and food more efficiently, which will result in prettier, more successful flowering. Make branch cuts ¼ inch above a bud and select branches between 1 to 3 feet long, depending on the size and impact of the display you want for the final arrangement. Cut branches should be placed in a container of water immediately, so have a bucket or jar on hand at cutting time.
Bring the branches indoors, and using a floral knife, cut the bases of the branches at 45 degree angles. Then immediately place them back in the water. This maximizes their ability to take in nutrients and water. Cold water is best, especially if outdoor temperatures are below the freezing point. Branches should always be held upright in the container, and the water should only cover the first inch of the branch bases.
After a day or so, replace the container water with slightly warm water, and add a homemade flower preservative made from the following: 2 cups lemon-lime soda, 2 cups warm water, and ½ teaspoon bleach (recipe care of Purdue Extension). At this point, the branches need to be stored in a cool place with moderate light, and the container’s water level needs to be maintained at its original depth. After a week or so, the buds should start to plump up and show some color.
Once the signs of bud break appear, place your branches in a warmer, brighter spot with indirect sunlight, and arrange them in a vase with added flower food. In a matter of days, they should be blooming and beautiful!
After flowering, the bases of some of your branches may root. This is most common with pussy willow and curly willow. If this happens, be sure to pot up your cuttings.
Plant the rooted cuttings in 1-gallon pots filled with Fafard Professional Potting Mix, and keep the pots moist in a cool, well-lit location until the threat of frost has passed. Once the weather has warmed up, the cuttings should have rooted well enough to be planted in the ground. You might even want to share some with friends, so they can force their own winter branches in the future and keep the cycle of sharing going.