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Branch Forcing Guide

Martha Stewart Living Television

To force a branch, you must cut it, bring it indoors, and provide it with copious amounts of water and the warmth that it would expect in spring. The easiest branches to force are those that are early-season bloomers. Bright-red, twiggy quince (Chaenomeles japonica), graceful white shad (Amelanchier), and fragrant yellow witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) bloom so early on their own that it's a toss-up whether to call this forcing or just bringing stuff inside.

Fruits such as apple, pear, cherry, and crab apple will slowly bloom in colors from cream to deep rose. Highbush huckleberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) opens tiny, pale, vase-shaped flowers among intricate tangles of delicate twigs, and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) reveals miniature flowers with a pleasantly piquant fragrance.

Leaves and catkins may also be forced. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) produces fancy chartreuse tassels, and red maple (A. rubrum), little red fireworks, both of which mix beautifully in arrangements with more floriferous branches. A large lateral branch of moosewood (A. pensylvanicum; usually considered a weed tree) slowly unfolds enormous leaves like a magician pulling green hankies out of midair.

Forcing Branches How-To
For the branches mentioned here, our forcing technique is simple.

1. Gather or purchase your sticks, and cut the ends on a slant with sharp shears. Immediately plunge the bare twigs into tepid water, preferably in an attractive container.

Apple, cherry, quince, forsythia, spicebush, huckleberry, and other branches that bear small flowers may be cut very early (consult your county extension service for advice). Branches bearing larger flowers, such as the fabulous pale-yellow, lemon-scented Magnolia x 'Elizabeth,' should be left outside on their shrubs until the buds are fat and well developed.

Most branches work beautifully, except for lilac; The lilacs you can buy in florists. shops are not really forced but are shipped from warmer places where they're naturally blooming.

2. During the slow coaxing period, which may take anywhere from a week to a month, keep the water in the vases clean and high. If your house is arid and hot, mist your arrangements often and display them in your coolest location -- 58 F is ideal.

Choosing a Branch
Branches are surprisingly easy to obtain. If you have even the smallest of yards, something is sleeping there for you to happen upon. Try snips of all your shrubs, remembering that those with the smallest flowers are often the easiest to force.

Besides the shrubs and trees already mentioned here, experiment with other popular garden plants, such as dogwood, privet, mock orange, pieris, currant, gooseberry, winter sweet, and white forsythia (actually not forsythia at all, but Abeliophyllum distichum). When you cut branches from fruit trees, be sure to get the fat, wrinkly flowering buds as opposed to the smooth, pointy vegetative buds. The vegetative buds will produce leaves only.

If you don't have a garden, see if you can get branches from friends or ask your local tree expert if you can buy his or her shrub prunings. Big nurseries are also sometimes obliging. Even a winter's errand down an unlovely road may yield a tiny twist of vine that can cast beautiful shadows on the kitchen windowsill. Half the pleasure is in the discovery.