One way we can get a taste of spring a little early is to force branches into flower. It's easy to do, according to Kris Bachtell, vice president of collections and facilities at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
"Forcing" means bringing plants indoors to encourage them to do what comes naturally, only sooner. Inside our warm homes, branches will come out of their winter dormancy and open their buds weeks ahead of time.
Choose branches from plants that flower in early spring, such as forsythia, cherry, Cornelian cherry dogwood, pussy willow or redbud, Bachtell says. He also likes boxwood: "The wispy spring flowers are not showy, but they have a very pleasant fragrance," he says.
You can cut the branches any time in late winter, but no earlier than mid-January. That's because the shrubs need to undergo a period of cold in order to bloom.
"Make sure you choose branches that have lots of flower buds on them," Bachtell says. But also take care that the branches you cut will not harm the grace and form of the shrub left behind. Many gardeners force branches that they have removed in the course of dormant pruning.
The key to forcing branches is to start slow, Bachtell says. Bring the branches into a place that is dimly lit and cool but not freezing, about 50 to 60 degrees. An unheated garage can work well. "If you store your soda pop out there and it doesn't freeze, your branches won't either," he says. Make a clean cut at the end of each branch and place it immediately in water.
Once the buds have started to open, you can transfer the branches into your vase. It will take a couple of weeks for the buds to open, so plan ahead if you are preparing floral arrangements for an occasion, he says. Flowering branches blend well with other flowers, Bachtell says, such as combining pussy willows with daffodils.
Your branches will hold their flowers longest if you keep them cool. Change their water every few days, and consider using a floral additive such as those sold for cut flowers.
Treat them well, and these first flowers can tide you over until the blooms begin to open in the world outdoors.