by Melissa Moore France
Although the winter landscape is an extreme contrast to the other seasons of our region, it is no less beautiful. The stark, simplicity of bare branches reaching toward a winter sky and scattered berries against evergreens is a restful respite from the rest of the year’s profusion of natural color. However, in January, spring color is already pulsing just beneath the brown and gray textures of many trees and shrubs.
You can see colorful blossoms and leaves before spring by using a technique called forcing. Forcing actually means you will be coaxing branches to bloom by bringing them indoors and providing them with the warmth and water that spring would give them. As a rule, branches that bloom earlier naturally, will bloom quicker indoors. Forsythia is a good candidate since it blooms in late February and early March. However, any plant with swollen buds will respond to forcing.
You can collect branches to experiment with while on a walk in the woods or just by strolling around your yard. Usually, branches that bear small flowers can be cut earlier for forcing than branches that produce large blooms. When gathering fruit tree branches, look for fat, wrinkly flower buds rather than smooth, pointed leaf buds. Below is a partial list of tree and shrub branches that can be forced:
Cut branches when the temperature is above freezing so the transition from outdoors to indoors will be less abrupt. Cut branches on a slant with a sharp shear and immediately place the ends into a pail of lukewarm water. Place the branches in the coolest room of the house, or in a basement or garage, as long as the temperature doesn’t dip below freezing at night. The ideal temperature for forcing is 58 degrees. Light is not important at this stage, but a high level of humidity is. The dry air of a heated house will cause dormant stems to die or to bloom weakly.
To speed moisture absorption, cut a 3-4 inch slit at the base end of the branches and wrap the upper portions in damp newspapers or plastic wrap. Every couple of days, change the water (unless you have added cut-flower food) and mist the upper portions of the branches. Re-cut the branch ends whenever they are exposed to the air.
After a few days, the buds should begin to show color. Remove the wrapping and move the branches to a brightly lit, yet cool room to speed up blooming. Avoid direct sunlight because it will dry out buds and shorten the life of flowers. It may take a 1- 4 weeks for flowers to open. Making notes of the different species, cutting dates, and flowering dates will allow you to repeat the most successful forcings next year.
When arranging your forced blooms in vases, consider using cedar, pine, or holly as fillers. After all, winter is the evergreens’ time to shine. Red winterberry branches, orange bittersweet berries, blue privet or juniper berries and rose hips can also be interesting and easily found additions to your winter bouquets. Forcing branches to bloom is a fun way to see a preview of spring.