CLIPPING STEMS AND branches of flowering trees and shrubs to bring indoors and coax into an early spring is one of my favorite seasonal rhythms. By late February, most spring-blooming woody plants have received their requisite weeks of chilling, and their buds are beginning to swell. With only a little prodding in the way of supplying ample moisture and gentle warmth, these buds can be persuaded to unfurl weeks ahead of their regular bloom schedule.
Take a walk through your garden and the surrounding neighborhood to scout possible stems to harvest for this project. Clippings from fruit trees are ideal for forcing. Look for neighbors who are pruning their apple, cherry, crabapple or plum trees. While writing this story, I approached a tree crew trimming streetside purple-leaf plums on a miserable wet day. I came away with several good-size branches and a smile from the cleanup crew.
Other forcing favorites include witch hazel (Hamamelis), magnolia, forsythia, flowering quince (Chaenomeles) and ornamental flowering cherries and pears. Think beyond flowers. Many woody trees and shrubs have beautiful emerging leaves and catkins, like Japanese maple, birch, twig dogwood, various willows and even the humble alder. Of course, many flowering stems will include buds for both leaves and flowers. Flower buds are more rounded than leaf buds, which are generally slender and more pointed.
Harvest your branches on a day when the temperature is above freezing. Use clean, sharp pruners to avoid bruising the wood or leaving an open wound on the plant that would be vulnerable to disease. And please, be sensitive to the natural shape and growth habit of the tree or shrub.
To prepare your stems for forcing, many sources say to smash the ends with a hammer, but Brad Siebe, general manager of the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, politely disagrees. “I don’t recommend mashing the stem, because you’re exposing more of the plant to biological breakdown, which will foul your water and clog the stems,” Siebe tells me.
Using pruning shears to slit the stem or crisscross the base with two cuts encourages moisture uptake, but oftentimes Siebe doesn’t do anything. Ideally, several hours in a bath of cool water helps kick-start the process to thoroughly hydrate the stems. But if you don’t have access to a tub, or if the household would prefer that you keep horticulture out of the bathroom, just use the largest bucket you can find, and immerse the branches as deeply as possible.
Place your buckets of branches in a cool location, like a basement, garage or mudroom, away from sunlight and heat sources that could desiccate the stems.
The closer a plant is to blooming, the quicker it will respond to forcing. “Some varieties force faster than others,” Siebe advises. “Forsythia, for example, comes really quick — maybe a week. Other things may take two to three weeks to force.”
Freshen the soaking water a couple of times a week; a scant teaspoon of bleach helps keep bacteria levels in check.
Once buds begin to crack and you can see bloom or leaf color, it’s time to bring your branches into your living space. I know we’ve all seen dramatic branches in oversized arrangements, but shorter lengths are just as dramatic in a home setting and are far less subject to tipping.
Spare, casually arranged stems that reveal the armature of the plant spangled with tender new blossoms or fragile leaves are like a breath of spring. If you’re reluctant to trim from your own garden, the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market offers fresh-cut branches and stems for forcing. Public hours are Tuesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon. Check the website (Seattlewholesalegrowersmarket.com) for safety protocols and details about making an appointment.