This is the time of year when spirits yearn for green sprouts and signs of warmer weather to come. You can hurry nature along with a glorious indoor display of blossoms from the cut branches of spring-flowering shrubs and trees. Forcing branches into bloom is not difficult, and a thoughtful selection of plants will ensure a succession of blooms for several months.
In order to bloom, the plants must have been dormant for 40 to 60 days in temperatures below 40ºF, so choose branches that set their buds in fall or early winter (see below). Look for branches with fat flower buds (the small buds are leaf buds). To preserve the shape and health of the plant, cut branches that you would normally prune.
Scrape about 2 inches of bark from the cut end of the branch and make a 3- to 5-inch slit in the stem end to enhance water absorption. You can also split the end by hammering it gently; be careful to avoid crushing the branch, which would accelerate decay.
Fill a tall container with room-temperature water and place the cut branches in it. Or fill the bathtub and submerge the entire branch — buds and all. Let them soak overnight so that they will absorb as much water as possible. Fill a second container with cool water, add a floral preservative (available from florists), then transfer the branches to a new container. Place the branches in a cool, dimly lit place. In three or four days bring branches into a bright area out of direct sunlight. Change the water and cut 1 inch off the bottom of each stem every week. Mist the branches at least once a day. They may take as long as 3 weeks to bloom, but the sight of all those precious buds bursting with divine color is a glorious reward for your patient anticipation.
Blooming times and cutting times will vary according to your location and the weather conditions. The earliest bloomers are witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), forsythia (Forsythia spp.), pussy willow (Salix discolor), azalea (Rhododendron spp.), and flowering quince (Chaenomeles).
For later forcing choose from magnolia, apple, and crab apple trees (Malus spp.), beach plum (Prunus maritima), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), red bud (Cercis canadensis), and mock orange (Philadelphus spp.).