The snow has been covering and insulating the ground, making it difficult for some of our early spring bulbs to make themselves known. Without the snowdrops and winter aconite showing, we’re limited in what we can bring indoors. Sure, we can purchase some tulips or paper white narcissus to go along with the amaryllis. But there may be another option.
The snow has been covering and insulating the ground, making it difficult for some of our early spring bulbs to make themselves known.
Without the snowdrops and winter aconite showing, we’re limited in what we can bring indoors. Sure, we can purchase some tulips or paper white narcissus to go along with the amaryllis. But there may be another option.
Many spring flowering branches have plump buds. With just the right amount of warmth, they will pop open, filling the indoors with great color. In other words, by fooling the plants with warm water and a warm temperature, they’ll think it’s spring and bloom.
This process is called “forcing,” which is a catchall phrase on getting shrubs, trees and some plants such as potted tulips, hyacinths and daffodils to bloom. Fortunately, we don’t have to threaten them or hold a weapon to their twigs.
Most spring-blooming trees and shrubs set their flower buds in the fall, but need to go through a specific amount of chilling to set the flowers. Forsythia and magnolia only need a couple weeks of cold temperatures, which is why you may find them blooming during a warm spell in late December or January.
Apples, on the other hand, can’t be followed and take months for the flowers to mature. That’s probably smart because it helps ensure an apple crop year after year.
Most other flowering trees and shrubs fall somewhere in between. However, this being February, most have set their flower buds and are just waiting for warm days.
If you look at the stems of magnolia, forsythia, witchhazel, viburnums, quince and rhododendrons, you can see the buds are swelling and filling out. They’re still tightly held by the scales covering the flowers, but you can sense the longing to explode with colors, much like we long to shed our coats to get into T-shirts and shorts.
These are the plants to select.
Lilacs tend to be wimps when it comes to forcing, even though their buds are one of the fattest around. They might produce a few leaves and flowers, but the flowers never seem to amount to what they do outside.
Cherries, plums, pears and peaches might produce a fair amount of flowers. If you have an apricot, it will likely bloom nicely indoors. Considering that most apricots get frosted by a late freeze, that’s the best way to enjoy them.
Even branches that produce leaves instead of flowers might be welcomed in a vase, with or without flowers.
Start by selecting long branches. Carefully prune them from the plant, trying not to seriously destroy the shape of the plant. For pussy willows and forsythia, it’s almost impossible to seriously destroy the shape of the plant — they send up great suckers yearly that replace what’s been removed. The longer the branches, the better.
Next, soak the limb in the bathtub in warm water overnight. Placing limbs in a deep bucket with warm water is the next-best thing. The deeper the bucket or container, the better. The goal is to soften up the buds with the warm water so they’ll pop off easily. Aim for a water temperature that’s suitable for bathing a baby so the branch starts absorbing the water.
After 12 to 24 hours, you can transfer the branches to a vase. Change the water every other day. If you don’t, bacteria can start growing and eventually clog all the water vessels of the branch. Dump out all of the water and fill the vase with fresh water. You can empty the water into a watering can or pitcher and use it to water your houseplants instead of pouring it down a drain.
Some buds will start swelling in a matter of days. Others may take a week or more. Patience is a definite virtue. Just keep the limbs out of the reach of pets.
After a week or so, cut another inch off the bottom of the limbs when you change the water. This fresh cut allows water to be absorbed more quickly.
If all goes well, within two to three weeks, you’ll see the buds start to show some color. Yell “hallelujah,” but remember you’re not out of the woods yet.
Bring the vase of branches up from the basement and into bright light. That will allow the buds to pop faster, and they’ll be brighter. The branches need sunlight for the yellows to shine and the reds to stand out.
Don’t forget to keep changing the water.
The brighter the sun and the cooler the room, the longer the flowers will last. But they won’t last forever. Once they start fading and wilting, that’s about it. They’re perfect compost fodder at this point.
Occasionally, the branches will root. With the possible exception of pussy willows, most aren’t worth much.
David Robson is a horticulture educator for the University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.