Forcing cut shrub and tree branches for indoor blooms

Bob Dluzen
Special to The Detroit News

This is the time of the year many gardeners begin to get the urge to grow something new. Forcing branches is one way to satisfy that impulse. It’s something I do every year.

For anyone who hasn’t heard the term, forcing is the process that is used to induce plants to bloom out of their normal blossoming time. Even though our winter has been relatively mild, it’s still not spring and there’s plenty of cold weather ahead. So a few blooming branches are a welcome sight.

Just about any spring flowering shrub or tree can be coaxed into blooming.

Shrubs in general are easier to force than trees. Some common spring shrubs that make good candidates include: honeysuckle, forsythia, lilac, pussywillow, dogwood, rhododendron, wisteria and many others.

For trees you might try: crabapple, cherry, peach, pear, redbud, magnolia or flowering dogwood among others.

Not all branches develop flowers. Some are forced just for their interesting leaves.

Select branches with the most buds. These pussywillow buds will open into fuzzy catkins.

Just placing cut branches into a container of water and waiting to see what happens is the simplest approach but may not give you the best results. That being said, I’ve done just that plenty of times. Over time, gardeners have come up with procedures that will help ensure success.

To begin, collect your branches when the temperature is above freezing if at all possible.

Keep in mind water is essential for the forcing process. Making a fresh, clean cut at the base of the branch as you place your cut branches into the container will remove any clogs that might inhibit the uptake of water. You’ll probably be doing that anyway while you arrange your branches. Make all cuts on an angle and rub off the buds from the bottom of the branch where it will be submerged in the water.

Some branches like lilacs do well by having their cut ends slightly crushed as they go into the water. X-shaped vertical slits cut into the base will help the twigs take up water too.

Cuttings taken from these red oiser dogwood growing in the wild will produce small white flowers that compliment the red branches.

Since houses are typically dry during the winter, frequent misting will help keep the buds from drying out, especially before they open.

Change the water every day to keep mold or bacteria from growing and clogging up the branch’s xylem.

If changing water is too much of a hassle, using a floral preservative like the one used for keeping flower arrangements fresh will reduce the number of water changes. You can make your own floral solution by dissolving 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice and a half a teaspoon of chlorine bleach into a quart of water.

The first water should be warm to the touch and only a few inches deep. Wait a half-hour to allow the branches to take up this clear water, then top off with your floral solution.

Moving your container of branches to a cool area at night, below 60 degrees, will help them last longer. If you are like us and turn down the heat at night, that should be no problem.

Note that some species will open in as little as week, others make take four or five weeks before they flower. By two weeks time you should be seeing at least some swelling and bud opening with most species. The closer we get to spring, the quicker the buds will open.

You don’t have to do all of these suggestions to force branches but  following just one or two will boost your success rate.