Making flowers bloom during the winter
Avoid going to the Dark Side in the dead of winter. Brighten your home by forcing branches to awaken indoors and flower now before spring.
“Forcing” describes the process of coaxing flowers into bloom indoors, after they have completed their winter dormancy requirement. Materials cut after January 15 usually open well indoors. You may have experience forcing bulbs such as paperwhites and amaryllis indoors.
Early spring flowering trees and shrubs form their flower buds in the fall before the plants go dormant. After a period of at least eight weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees, branches can be cut and forced into bloom.
Depending on the species, you can force branches to bloom in January, February or March (approximately one to two months before their normal flowering).
How to get started
Remember that by cutting branches, you will be reducing the plant’s natural spring display outdoors. Follow good pruning principles when cutting branches from the crowded areas of the plant. Cut about 1/4 inch above a side bud or branch, leaving no stub. Cut the branches six to 18 inches long.
After you bring the branches inside, make a second cut on a slant just above the previous cut. If the temperature is below freezing when you cut the branches, immerse the entire branch in cool water for several hours or overnight to keep the buds from opening prematurely. A large tub or basin may be helpful. If the weather is above freezing, there is no need for a soak.
Next, put the branches in a container that will hold them upright. Add warm water (110 degrees) no higher than three inches on the stems. Place the container in a cool (60-65 degrees), partially shaded location. Replace the water, keeping it at its original height.
Some gardeners like to add bleach to the water to control bacteria growth (approximately one tablespoon per gallon). Finally, when the buds show color (which may take from one to five weeks depending on the plant), move the branches to a lighted room, out of direct sunlight. Remove them from the storage container and arrange them as desired.
Try these trees and shrubs
Some of the easiest to force are shrubs such as forsythia, quince and pussy willow.
Purple-leafed plum and cherry trees are also excellent forcing specimens, with plum blooming a little earlier than cherry.
Azalea, witch hazel and Scotch broom can be cut as early as January. Some species, such as lilac and redbud, should not be cut until March, however.
Place different types of stems in each arrangement, since some, such as forsythia, will bloom more quickly than others. Forsythia usually opens within a week, while flowering quince and apple may take 10 to 12 days.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.