Make Spring Come Early
forcing branches on flowering trees
by Ruth S. Foster
Until small pale leaves appear on outdoor trees and flowers open, it doesn't really seem like spring. But you can make it come earlier to your house by bringing branches into the house for forcing.
It's actually quite easy to force buds to open in your home. Just cut long branches with fat buds. (The flower buds are bigger than the leaf buds.) Put them in a pail or vase of deep water, and wait until they think it's spring and time to open. They rarely fail. The classic harbinger of spring is pussy willow, a small tree that grows in any wet area. The arcane relationships among living things are fascinating. When a freshly cut willow branch is put in water, it usually roots. What's more, if other plants are put in with it, they usually root also. Willows produce a universal rooting hormone and are also a source of the active ingredient in our aspirin.
The plants that burst into flower fastest indoors are those with the shortest time until their regular outdoor blooming date. For March cutting, that means those that flower in April. In the North, for instance, early blooming forsythia and pussy willow cut in March should begin to bloom in about 2 weeks.
Fruit trees force very well. Peach, apricot and cherry are highly prized for spring arrangements. Their special charm is that they flower before the leaves come out. Magnolias and old fashioned quince are others. Not every blossom will open, but the effect is charming and ethereal. After the flowers, small pale green leaves unfold. Eventually, these usually wilt, as fungi clog their water transport tubules.
Dogwood flowers always make a spectacular show on their bare grey branches. If dogwoods that bloom in May are cut in March, they may take 20 or 30 days to force indoors. Crabapples are also worth trying, however since crabs leaf out before flowering, they are not as effective.
Trees and shrubs that flower late in the season like lilacs, hydrangea and kousa dogwoods are very hard to force satisfactorily so stick to the early season ones.
Sometimes I bring in branches just for their small new leaves. Red maple is a great favorite with tiny red flowers, followed by red-bronze leaves. The golden branches of weeping willow put out delicate chartreuse leaves which make a good show too. The nice thing about these is you can cut huge, impressive boughs. And they're free.
Some Special Tricks Fore More Efficient Forcing. One is to carry a bucket of lukewarm warm water outside and plunge the cut branches in immediately. Once inside, put them in a very deep vase or bucket of fresh lukewarm (not hot) water, and recut the stems under water. Theoretically, when stems are cut under water, there is no loss of capillary pressure and so no air bubbles will clog the water transport tubules. Also cold water causes the tubules to constrict, while lukewarm water causes them to relax open.
Let them stay in a warm place for a day or two. Then arrange in their final place. The warmer the temperature, the faster the buds break. But sun or too much heat causes them to fade faster. Each plant has its own timetable with special warmth and light requirements (called Growing Degree Days or GDD), but usually one can estimate how long it will take by when they flower outdoors.