Forcing Spring Flowering Trees and Shrubs into Bloom

A Breath of Spring for the Impatient Gardener

Lyuba Burakova / Stocksy United

Flowering trees and shrubs, such as forsythia and magnolia, are a sure sign that spring has arrived. Impatient gardeners in cold climates can create an early breath of spring indoors, in late winter, by forcing branches of spring flowering trees and shrubs to bloom before they normally would if left outdoors, on their own.

Forcing spring bloomers is an easy enough task. The hardest part of forcing is probably getting yourself outside in the cold, snowy weather, to cut the branches and bring them indoors. However, the reward is worth it.

Which Flowering Trees and Shrubs are Good Candidates for Forcing into Bloom?

There are many spring flowering plants that will easily blossom early indoors and you can experiment with whatever you have growing in your yard. Some are more easily forced than others, but you may be surprised by how readily the branches will bloom.

Some traditional trees and shrubs to try forcing include azalea, beautybush, crabapple, flowering quince, forsythia, magnolia, pussy willow, redbud, rhododendron, serviceberry, spirea, witch hazel, and fruit trees such as cherries, pears and apples.

When to Cut Your Branches

Many spring flowering trees and shrubs require a period of cold dormancy in order to bloom, which is why forcing usually takes place in late winter or early spring. Timing will depend on the whims of the weather each season, but by mid-January, most spring bloomers have had sufficient time in cold temperatures for them to be ready to be cut, brought indoors and forced into bloom. However, there are a few, such as crab apples, beautybush, magnolias, redbuds, and spireas, that require a longer dormancy and do better if you wait until late-February / early-March.

It's best to cut your branches on a relatively warm day. If that's not possible and the branches are frozen when you cut them, it helps to submerge the entire branch in slightly warm water for a few hours.

How to Cut Branches for Forcing

You want to be certain you are getting branches with flower buds and not just leafy growth. There may be both flower and leaf buds on the stems, but flower buds tend to be rounder and larger than leaf buds. Look for swollen, plump buds. Chances are if you see two different types of buds, you have a branch with flower buds on it.

Cut your branches at an angle and be sure you cut them long enough to stand tall enough in your vase or container to make a nice display.

How to Force Trees and Shrubs into Flower

  • Don’t let the branches dry out. Making a  fresh cut once you get the branches indoors, or better still, smashing the bottoms of your branches gently with a hammer, will make it easier for the branches to take up water.
  • Your branches are going to need a period of transition, to be fooled into thinking it's really spring and the weather is warming. Start slowly, to give the branches a chance to adjust After placing your cut or smashes branches in a container of water, place your container away from sunlight, in a cool location. A basement works well for this.
  • Cover the branches loosely with a plastic bag or mist them daily to prevent them from drying out. Also check the water in the container daily and change it when it becomes cloudy or discolored, to prevent rotting.
  • As the branches take up water, the buds will begin to swell. Depending on the type of branch and when you cut them, you should see the buds enlarge and begin to open within 1 - 6 weeks or cutting them. At this time, you can move your flowering branches into the sunlight and place them on display. Pussy willow and forsythia will be the first to open, but the closer to their outdoor flowering time you cut, the quicker all the branches will bloom.

    Keep checking and changing the water in the container, whenever it becomes discolored, and your forced blooms will last for weeks, maybe even until the real thing blossoms outdoors.

    The branches may even root in the water. If they do, pot them up until you can plant them outdoors.