Got Seasonal Affective Disorder, a.k.a. the winter blahs? Cause Spring to arrive ahead of schedule by forcing flowering branches of woody ornamentals indoors. Any deciduous shrub or tree that flowers in early spring is a good candidate for forcing, although shrubs typically flower a bit more easily. Try Redbud, Spirea, Viburnum, Mahonia (Oregon Grape), Quince, Pussy Willow, Japanese Rose (Kerria), Flowering Cherry, Plum or Flowering Almond, Apple, Crabapple or Pear, Magnolia branches or the ubiquitous Forsythia.
Enjoy these blooms at home, or enter your cut stems of woody ornamentals in in a public Flower Show and win a blue ribbon! For example, the Southeastern Flower Show is Feb. 25-27 with entries the day before, and there are two classes to enter: "Cut Specimens-Woody" Class H08 and "From the Outside In . . .A Musical Arrangement" Class H11, both in the Horticulture Division.
After experiencing about eight weeks of outdoor temperatures in the 40s or below in the garden, most woodies will be ready to force. In addition to watching the calendar (late winter), swelling buds on garden plants are another good indicator. It will take anywhere from a week to nearly two months for the buds to turn into flowers while being forced. Keep in mind, the closer to the normal flowering date, the more readily the flowering branches can be forced into bloom.
Pick a day in January or February when temperatures have been above freezing. Before going out, first disinfect a deep bucket with detergent or a bleach solution, rinsing thoroughly. Then fill with warm (not hot, not cold) water and add a cut flower preservative. Commercial “cut flower food” provides both elaborated sugars that are normally supplied through photosynthesis and a disinfectant to reduce the growth of bacteria that can clog the vascular (water conducting) tissues. Rosie Lerner and Michael Dana of the Perdue Department of Horticulture offer three recipes for make-your-own preservative solutions that will prolong the life of the flowering branches in Forcing Branches for Winter Color: http://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/ho-23.pdf .
Use sharpened bypass pruners or a sharp knife to harvest branches on your target plants. Flower buds are generally rounder and larger than leaf buds, so choose branches with lots of potential flowers. Keep an eye on the overall shape of the shrub or tree as you cut and cut a few extra branches because some may not absorb water, and also they are great to share with friends or take to the office.
Quickly get those branches into water. Re-cut each stem on an angle to increase the surface area and ensure that it won’t sit flat on the bottom of the vase. Split or score the bottom inch or two of each stem to expose the conductive tissues (cambium layer) and encourage maximum water uptake and plunge them into the waiting vase. Trim off any buds or twigs that will be submerged under water so they won’t rot.
Cover the branches with a voluminous plastic bag (dry cleaner bags are great for this) and place in a cool room (50-60 degrees F.) out of direct sunlight. Check them frequently to see how they are coming along and to refresh the water, and when beginning to bloom, bring them into warmer temperatures.
Compose a beautiful arrangement either with forced branches alone or by including other spring flowers. Choose the most delightful decorative vase and enjoy them for a week or two. Prolong the display by moving them into a cool garage or breezeway each night.
And when the blooms are spent, before discarding, check to see if the woody stems have rooted in the water (!). Pussy Willows are notorious for easy-rooting will often sprout both roots and fresh green leaves. If so, pot them up for garden planting or gifts to friends.
Photos: Pussy willows, Mahonia- Geri Laufer, buckets-BUHI Imports, cherry branch-blogs O'Reilly, Forsythia arrangement-Southwood Nursery