It’s March. Still walking around humps of nasty grey snow. Tired of these boots. Can’t bear to put that winter overcoat on again. The days are getting longer, but not fast enough.
We may not be able to shed our winter clothes or make the weather warm and sunny, but we can make springtime flowers happen in our homes right now. According to Jeb Taylor of , all you need is a pair of sharp pruning shears and a friendly neighbor with almost any kind of flowering shrub or tree.
Jeb is talking about “forcing” the flowers of dormant plants. When you cut branches from flowering trees or shrubs and bring them indoors, you are tricking them or “forcing” them to wake up from their dormant state and bloom ahead of time. Jeb explains that the very easiest to force — and probably most widely available — flowering shrub in our area is forsythia, but he points out that it’s possible to force the blossoms of flowering quince, peach, crabapple, and many more varieties of shrubs and trees.
As a former American history teacher, I remember March as an especially dreary month, because it’s the part of the semester when you are stuck in the last years of the nineteenth century with greedy robber barons, no real heroes, and depressing cycles of bank failures and foreclosures. And no vacation until April. Maybe that’s why I started forcing forsythia blossoms.
We used to have a couple of scraggly forsythia bushes on the corner of our property where the school bus picked up the neighborhood kids. Each year when March came, we were so desperate for color that I would clip some forsythia branches to bring inside. That meant pruning the bushes gently — finding branches that were growing crosswise across other branches, or long single shoots that stuck out wildly from the bush like an elderly aunt’s chin hairs. It meant clipping branches off at a length of two or three feet and soaking them in lukewarm water before arranging them in the giant green jug by the fireplace.
Using pruning shears makes it easy to do the clipping, but you can do the job with a sharp knife, too. Before you arrange the branches in a vase you want to rouse them from their dormant state and get their juices going. Some folks lay them in warm water in the bathtub -- the entire branches! -- overnight.
Jeb agreed that such extreme measures might in fact soften the buds and make it easier for them to open, but he pointed out that the most important goal is to move fluid up the stem to the blossoms. He showed me the diagonally shaved bases of the peach branches he was in the process of forcing.
The long diagonal cut provides the liquid access to a long stretch of the inside of the stem, including the core of the stem. It also assues that the bottoms of the branches will not be resting against the bottom of the vase, which would inhibit the flow of the vital juices.
It’s best if you can find a place to put your branches that is light but not in direct sunlight, warm and moist (but not too hot – you are trying to imitate spring weather). If it’s easy to set them in an unheated room or someplace cool at night, so much the better. Some websites advise adding a few drops of liquid bleach or the florists’ kind of preservative to keep the water clean; Jeb says you get more blossoming going on if you change the water daily, or flush the water by holding the vase under a faucet.
It’s very hard to fail at forcing forsythia (except maybe if the air is dry or too hot – then the buds fall off before they blossom). By mid-March we always had an array of yellow flowers covering each arching branch. The bonus was that leaves followed the flowers, roots formed at the lower ends of the branches, and each year we ended up with more rooted forsythia stems to plant out at the corner.
After a couple of years of more and more forsythia bushes there was less room for the kids to tromp on the lawn and make it all muddy as they waited for the bus. And each year the American history classes did finally move into the 20th century and the Progressive Era.
PUSSY WILLOWS AND OTHER WAYS TO BRING SPRING INSIDE
Some of the most popular flowers that are forced are actually “catkins;” pussy willows are a prime example. Pussy willow’s soft, fuzzy grey buds that cry out to be stroked are the covering of the catkins. Pussy willows, among the very first signs of spring, have made their way into spring celebrations in several different cultures.
In China, the branches are sold in wet markets (markets where many different living things are sold) before the Lunar New Year. Once they are at home, all kinds of colorful (but mostly red) decorations are hung on them. The Cantonese name for pussy willows sounds similar to the word for money, so having pussy willows in your home invites prosperity for the new year.
Pussy willows and forsythia are among the easiest kinds of plants to force, because you don’t have to wait long and you don’t have to worry where the buds occur on the branch – the willow catkins or forsythia flowers are so abundant that they always look lovely. When you are working with branches from dogwood or fruit trees there are not as many blossoms, so you have to choose branches with enough fat round little buds in appropriate places so that you can make an indoor arrangement that shows off the flowers. (The not-so-fat buds are probably leaf buds rather than flower buds; if you are not sure you can dissect one and see.)
You have to have at least eight weeks of winter for the plants to fully enter into their dormant state before you start to force the blossoms (but by now we’ve had certainly had that many weeks of winter!). While pussy willow and forsythia can be cut as soon as eight weeks of winter are past, there are some other plants, such as redbud, cherry, and lilac, that should not be cut before March.
If you are not up to clipping and forcing your spring blossoms, you can just catch one of those milder March afternoons and take a walk by the Pond or in the Arboretum or in your own sweet JP neighborhood and check out the buds and catkins that are developing all on their own. Happy beginning of spring!