Flowers for Free – Forcing Branches

One of my favorite shrubs for forcing, hamamelis 'Arnold Promise" flowering in my garden last spring. Cut and brought inside, these highly fragrant pom-pom like blossoms will persist for over a week.

The other day I passed by a florist shop, and sighed. The air was so redolent with the scents of spring with flowers and foliage in carefree profusion, that I was tempted to make a purchase. I paused for moment, considering a bunch of tulips, and then stopped; the small bouquet I was holding cost almost $20. No, I thought, putting the flowers back in their watery bath, there’s a better, cheaper way just waiting in your own back yard. The only thing that would be required was the will to push through the drifted snow, and a pair of clippers. So this morning, suitably clad, I made my way out to the witchhazel and did some strategic pruning. In a few days, the house will be filled with flowers and fragrance – for free. There’s nothing to it really, provided you’ve planned ahead and included shrubs for forcing in your landscape design.

Even the least experienced gardener has probably seen the most commonly forced shrub, the forsythia, brought indoors at one time or another. When I was a child, we always used cut branches of the forsythia to make our Easter Egg tree, and one of my fondest annual memories was going out into the garden with my mother to choose just the right branches from which to hang the decorated eggs. Forsythias in fact are so easy to force that they are almost foolproof — simply cut a few branches anytime after January, bring them inside and stick them in water. They are generally so eager to perform, that given enough time, not only will they flower, but they will sprout leaves and root as well. There are however, a whole host of other wonderful forcing candidates, (see the table below) that while perhaps not quite as simple to bring to bloom, more than make up for any added difficulties with a bonus of marvelously fragrant or remarkable flowers.

The trick to forcing branches of these lesser known varieties is two-fold. First, the branches must have had a sufficiently long period of dormancy before you bring them indoors. Generally speaking, anytime after the end of January will yield good results — the closer you are to the shrubs bloom time, obviously the shorter and easier the process will be. (This is why my foray this morning was to the witchhazel; given a few warm days, it will begin blooming any time now outdoors.) Secondly, you need to make some attempt at duplicating the natural weather conditions of bloom time during the forcing process. Most critical is sufficient moisture and humidity– the blossoms must not be allowed to dry out at anytime during the process or you will succeed in producing nothing more than a few desiccated wisps.

To this end, once you have chosen some suitable branches (suitable here being defined as at least a 12”  branch, having a large number of recognizably fat flower buds, and not belonging to part of the shrub where removal would harm the plant’s overall appearance), cut the branches flush to the main stem with a very sharp pair of shears, and immediately bring them inside and place them in a bucket of warm water. Preferably, you would actually completely submerge the branches in a large tub for 24 hours, but given the paucity of basement laundry or floral sinks these days, 3 or 4 heavy mistings to drench the branches over a period of 24 hours will do.) Then place the bucket somewhere where the temperature will remain between 55-65, in bright, but indirect light. Higher temperatures and direct sunlight will only succeed in desiccating the branches and reducing bloom quality. The idea here is that you are trying to replicate the cool moist conditions of springtime. Depending on the species you choose, and how far advanced the season is, the process can take anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks. You will need to keep an eye on the water too, and change it if it becomes foul — a re-cutting of the base to keep the cut fresh can’t hurt either. Another florists trick: don’t wait till the buds have opened to arrange the flowers. Do it just before the buds burst, thereby preventing the delicate blossoms from being damaged in the process. The forced flowers will last just as long as they do outdoors — generally 2-7 days, depending on the variety. Moving the arrangement to a cool spot at night will lengthen the flowering period.

You may think that this sounds like rather a lot of fuss for a few simple flowering branches – that is until you try it. The first time  you walk into your house on a cold, wet winters day to find your apple or almond blossoms burst merrily forth, filling your entire home with heady scent and dreams of warmer days to come, you’ll  be hooked. From then on your only problem will be finding space to include all these beauties in your garden – which on the scale of gardening dilemmas, is a deliciously delightful problem to ponder.

Botanical Name Common Name Flower Color Best Time to Cut (Based on Zone 5) Weeks Needed to Force Comments
Abeliophyllum distichum Korean Abelialeaf white mid-January 1-3 easy; similar to forsythia
Aesculus hippocastanum Horsechesnut White to pink to shades of purple & red Mid-March 2-3
Amelanchier spp. Serviceberry white February 1-4 fragrant blossoms; easy
Cercis canadensis Redbud Rosy to magenta pink Early March 2-3 worthwhile, but somewhat difficult to force
Chaenomeles spp. Japanese Quince Red-orange Mid-February 4 brilliant blossoms
Cornus mas Cornelian Cherry Yellow January 2
Cornus spp. Dogwoods White & pink Mid-March 2-3
Crataegus spp. Hawthorns White through red Mid-March 4-5
Cytisus scoparius Scotch Broom Lavender Late January 4-6
Deutzia spp. Deutzias White Early March 3-4
Forsythia spp. Forsythias Yellow Mid-January 1-3 extremely easy
Fothergilla spp. Fothergillas White March 2-3 fragrant
Hamamelis spp. Witch Hazel Yellow January 1 one of the first blossom; fragrant
Kalmia latifolia Mountain Laurel White to deep pink Mid-March 5


Beautybush Pink Mid-March 6
Lonicera spp. Honeysuckles White to pink March 2-3 occasionally fragrant
Magnolia spp. Magnolias Creamy white to deep red Early March 3-5 larger budded varieties more difficult to force
Malus spp. Apples/Crabapples White, pink, to dark red February to Mid March 2-4 double flowering types force more slowly but last longer; very fragrant
Philadelphus spp. Mockoranges White Mid-March 4-5 extremely fragrant, though short lived
Prunus spp. Cherries, Flowering Almonds, Plums White & pink Early February 2-4 most wonderfully fragrant
Pyrus spp. Pears White Late January 4-5 excellent for forcing; fragrant
Rhododendron spp. Rhododendrons or Azaleas White through pink, lavender, lilac to red Late February 4-6 more difficult
Ribes spp. Currants, gooeberries Yellow Late March 1-2 some are fragrant
Salix discolor Pussy Willow N/A February 1-2 can be dried to preserve once buds open; branches will root if left in water
Spiraea spp. Spireas Generally white March 4 double flowering types force more slowly but last longer
Syringa spp. Lilacs White through purple Early March 4-5 very fragrant but possibly the hardest of all shrubs to force


Flowers for Free – Forcing Branches — 2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the wonderful list! At this time of year a begin to long for green and beautiful flowers. I did cave in and purchased a bouquet of yellow tulips and one of red roses. I was so excited to see the crocus, about 2 inches out of the ground, under the weeping willows.
    Spring couldn’t come soon enough!!

  2. Pingback: Bring In Spring! - Old House, Old Garden

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