By Renate Tilson

In the deep dark days of winter, a trip to the florist is always a delight for the senses. The trip’s effect on your pocketbook is a far less exciting experience, however. But you can save money and create an early springtime look indoors by bringing in branches of flowering shrubs from your garden and forcing them into early bloom.

Forcing branches to bloom before spring is in fact a small wonder. The process involves little more than gathering bare branches and twigs outdoors, bringing them indoors, and watching them unfurl their leaves and flowers. Branches cut in January will take anywhere from two to three weeks to unfurl, while those harvested as late as mid-March may open in one week. Cutting a few twigs every weekend will provide you with a wealth of floral varieties. lt is a beautiful process that quietly reminds us of the unspoken promises of spring to come.

Winter’s star attractions are the slender branches of flowering shrubs. They will showcase positively exotic blooms once indoors. Forsythia is an almost foolproof candidate. It can be forced into premature bloom indoors up to six weeks before its usual outdoor bloom time. The show will begin a week or two after you cut the bare branches and bring them inside. Select branches from your yard with fat flower buds. Don’t be hesitant to cut a branch 2-3 feet long. Place them in water, and just let them sit. Soon the buds will swell and show color. To extend the indoor bloom time, try to keep your blooms in a cool spot and away from heat vents and direct sun.

When you grow shrubs in your garden whose branches can be forced indoors, you can fill your house with lots of blooms for mere pennies in the dead of winter. Spring flowering shrubs make a wonderful addition to any landscape in their own right, and their appeal—once cut and brought indoors—is an added early spring bonus.

Ordinary pieris is a common landscape plant. Cut a few twigs in February and place in water, then watch them perk up with scores of pinkish-white flowers. They will sprout from branch tips, accompanied by a wonderful scent. The flowers and fragrance will last many weeks indoors. Flowering quince greets spring with waxy blooms in pink and coral. Forced indoors, the twigs add an understated beauty to any room.

If your flowering crabapple or plum tree is overdue for pruning, lop off some of those towering branches and display them indoors in a vase. They will give you graceful light-pink blossoms. Magnolias will start out with catkins and provide you with large blooms on leggy twigs for an oriental look. Try cutting some witch hazel mid-February for indoor color before the display starts outdoors. Flowering cherries will show you frilly blossoms in lovely shades of pink. Pussy willows are another old standby that charm young and old alike. 

It is a nice coincidence that the late winter season for forcing branches is also the best time to prune trees and flowering shrubs. You will not only be cutting a bouquet, but shaping and renewing your shrubs as well. In this way, you are promoting fresh new growth and heavier flowering in years to come.