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Forcing Branches to Flower

It's time to start forsythia. I'm not talking about germinating seeds, I'm talking about bringing branches indoors to "force" them to bloom.

Although the term sounds violent, forcing actually works by gentle persuasion: mimicking the conditions that spring will bring a little later, to convince flower buds it's time now to open. Warmth is key — but not too fast, or the flowers may be stunted and their color faint. Humidity is equally important.

Cut branches with a sharp tool, paying attention to the appearance of what remains. Immediately, wet them as thoroughly as you can, for 24 hours. Submerging in a bathtub of room-temperature water is ideal; otherwise plunge them in the deepest bucket you have, and mist them heavily several times during the first 24 hours, and/or wrap them in moist but loose cloth, like burlap.

Then stand them in water, in a place between 55 degrees and 65° F, in bright but indirect light. (This is quite warm after winter temperatures!) Change the water every few days.

They'll take between one and four weeks for the buds to swell. Mist them occasionally. When the buds begin to show color — but before the petals open — arrange the branches in a vase. (Buds are less likely to get knocked off than open flowers.)

For display, choose a bright but not sunny location. In addition, flowers will last longer if you can give them only 40 - 60°F at night.

Forsythia is very easy, but you can force almost anything: look for the flower buds, which are fatter than leaf buds. (If you cut one with a razor blade you'll see tiny flower parts.) For timing and more suggestions, see the tables mentioned below.

© Copyright 2003 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 17 January 2003. [In the papers, this accompanied an abbreviated version of the tables on the sites below.]

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For more information (including an exhaustive table, on each site, of what to force and when)
  • Forcing Branches into Bloom, by Michael Weishan. A four-page description.
  • Forcing Flowering Branches, by Debra Schwarze. Explains the procedure for forcing flowering branches, discusses decorative uses of flowering branches and provides a chart of plant type, color, cutting and forcing times. Published by the Cooperative Extension of the Institute of and Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska / Lincoln.