How to Force Branches of Spring-Flowering Trees and Shrubs

Care and How To

Gardeners can brighten up the last few weeks of winter by forcing branches of flowering trees and shrubs indoors.  Forsythias, pussywillows, serviceberries, crabapples, magnolias, redbuds, and many fruit trees can be coaxed into early bloom indoors, helping revive the spirits of winter-weary Iowans. 

pussy willow
pussy willow (Salix discolor)

When to Force Branches

Forcing can be done as soon as the buds begin to swell in late winter.  Forsythia and pussywillow can be forced as early as late February.  It’s best to wait until March for more difficult-to-force ornamentals, such as crabapples, magnolias, and redbuds. 

How to Collect Branches to Force into Bloom

Select branches containing larger, rounder, plump buds. Smaller, narrow, pointed buds are usually leaf buds.  Flower buds are generally larger and have a more rounded shape. Make clean, slanting cuts 1 to 2 feet from the tips of branches with a sharp hand shears.  Selectively remove branches that won’t harm the appearance or shape of the plant.  If pruning fruit trees in late winter, gather some of the pruned material for forcing indoors.  If possible, collect branches when temperatures are above 32°F.  If the plant material is frozen when collected, submerge the entire branch in a tub or pail of water for a few hours. 

Trees and Shrubs Well-Suited for Forcing Branches

  • forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)
  • pussy willow (Salix discolor)
  • goat willow (Salix caprea)
  • hazelnuts and filberts (Corylus)
  • fothergilla (Fothergilla)
  • witch hazels (Hamamelis)
  • eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • crabapples (Malus)
  • Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa)
  • flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
  • magnolia (Magnolia)
  • serviceberries (Amelanchier)
  • corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas
  • lilac (Syringa)
  • dogwood (Cornus)
  • hawthorns (Crataegus)
  • red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • birch (Betula)
  • Fruit Trees: apple (Malus), cherry and plum (Prunus), pear (Pyrus)

buds of forsythia
The larger, plump buds at the end of this dormant forsythia branch will open into flowers. 

Getting Buds to Bloom

Set the branches in a tall container of water and place them in a dimly lit, cool (60 to 65°F) location.  Spray or mist the branches two or three times a day to prevent the buds from drying out.  Also, change the water in the container daily during the forcing period.  Daily changes of water should inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi which could interfere with the absorption of water by the branches.  When the flower buds begin to open, move the branches into a bright room.  Keep the flowering branches out of direct sunlight and in a cool location to prolong the bloom period. 

The time period required to force branches into bloom depends upon the plant species and collection date.  Forsythia and pussywillow generally take only one to three weeks to force.  Apple and crabapple branches may take two to four weeks.  The forcing period for magnolias is three to five weeks.  The closer it is to the plant’s normal outdoor flowering period, the less time it takes to force the cut branches indoors.

More Information

FAQs

witch hazel
witch hazels (Hamamelis) in flower

american hazelnut (Corylus americana)
Catkins of American hazelnut (Corylus americana)

flowering quince
Buds ready to open on flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)

redbud
eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) in full bloom

red mape
red maple (Acer rubrum)

 

Authors: 

Aaron Steil Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Aaron Steil is the consumer horticulture extension specialist at Iowa State University where he works with county Extension offices across the state to answer home gardening questions for all Iowans.  This includes information related to trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials, ...

Last Reviewed: 
March, 2023