Instant Spring: Forcing Forsythia

January 10, 2013

A VASE OF GLOWING, GOLDEN FORSYTHIA is just the thing to cure the winter doldrums. You can cut the stems in January (or even December, as I sometimes do), and they will bloom for you just 2 or 3 weeks later. Of course, the twigs will appear dead at first. But the flowers are there, just waiting for the warmth and light your windows can provide. My tips for forcing and arranging the stems of this friendly shrub:

No matter how frigid the weather might be, go out with sharp pruners and gather forsythia bouquets. I clip mine from the big shrub in my front yard (above), even when the branches are caked with ice. Choose branches of varying lengths and shapes for the best sculptural effect.

Forsythia requires only 30 cumulative (not consecutive) hours of below 40-degree temperatures in order to bloom. That is why we are able to force its graceful branches so early in the year.

And by the way, forsythia is named for William Forsyth (1737-1804). He discovered the shrub while on a plant-hunting mission in China.

It warms my heart to know that you appreciate such trivia.

And here are the branches I collected. As you can see, I’m not wearing gloves on this nippy day. So let’s head back to the house, okay?

The house in question.

Indoors, cut the stems to attractive bouquet lengths. I always cut off any side-shoots that would otherwise be submerged in the vase. You can force these tiny trimmings, too — just place them in a suitably-small vase.

Then take a hammer, and smash the end of each stem. This will permit the stem to absorb water more rapidly.

Notice the green tissue beneath the bark?  This is called the cambium layer, and it is responsible for producing new roots and new shoots, and for making new tissue to heal over wounds. To discover if a woody plant is alive or dead, just scrape off a bit of bark. If the cambium layer is green, you can be sure the plant is very much alive.

Now arrange the stems in a tall vase. To keep the water sweet, you can add a drop of household bleach to the vase. Otherwise, simply refresh the water once each week.

I set my vase on the plant stand in front of a tall, south-facing window in my parlor.  To my eyes, the branches make a fascinating silhouette even when they are not covered with flowers.

It is my habit to place ‘Blue Jacket’ hyacinths in the same window as the forsythia. Last September, I set these bulbs “on vase” and then chilled them for 12 weeks in a spare refrigerator. Hyacinths require this cold, dark treatment in order to bloom.

The vases fit nicely on the latch ledge of the parlor window.

Here is the “still life with forsythia” in its early career. The potted amaryllis (on the first shelf) will be removed in short order. As you will soon discover, I have far more interesting things to place there.

Hyacinths, in bloom on the latch ledge.

I don’t know why we’re spending so much time on hyacinths.

After all, the subject of this article is forsythia.

When my forsythia blooms — and it always does — I like to surround it with flowering houseplants. In the photo above, I arranged pink wax begonias (these are great houseplants) around the vased forsythia. On the lower shelf are pots of purple and white Primula obconica (obtained from the florist).

Now, promise me you’ll trudge through the snow today, and collect an armful of “dead” forsythia twigs. These, in very short order, will produce an extraordinary spring portrait for you.

And if you enjoyed this article, by all means drop me a line in the comments field below. As always, I love to hear from you.

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Related Posts:
Plant Propagation: Layering
African Violets: How I Achieve Constant Bloom
Forcing Hyacinths for Winter Bloom

Comments

  1. Louise McPhillips says:

    Lovely! Here in Alabama, the forsythia is already sporting some sporadic bloom outside but I still bring it inside to force. In the garden, I have leftover paperwhites (from Christmases past) and hellebores blooming and the daphne odora is budded out!

  2. Amy Halvorson Miller says:

    Your window photo appears as still-life medicine against the winter blues. I am sad now to think of the begonia I let freeze outside–next year I’ll do better.

    I bought a amaryllis bulb on an after-Christmas clearance, seeing a lovely bud poking out of the box. Got it home to find it was so cramped in its packaging that it grew bent. Now it is blooming nicely but with its stem at a right angle to the bulb. Oh well, it’s my rescue plant brightening up the breakfast nook window.

  3. Louise McPhillips – Oh, the scent of Daphne odora! Sounds like spring is just around the corner for you.

    Amy Halvorson Miller – I always feel sorry for the department store amaryllis bulbs that are trapped in boxes. Kudos to you for rescuing one of them.

  4. Donna Libbey says:

    Big Hello from N.H. What a great idea! I’ll have to try this…Thank you Kevin.

  5. Julie B says:

    Kevin, I store the hyacinth bulbs in our rather chilly garage. when I’m ready to pot them up ( or rather glass them) I bring them in, place on the east facing kitche ledge and voila – two days later we have visible roots and daily growth. This is much easier for me than finding room for them in the ‘fridge.

    I’ve also found that using small pots filled with fairly fine gravel works just about as well as my hyacinth glasses. This is handy for those times when your bulb count outstrips your hyacinth face count. :)

  6. Erin says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  7. Hi Donna Libbey – I think you’ll enjoy the branches when they bloom in your home. I certainly do!

    Julie B – I’m glad that method works for you. I’ve tried it, and although the bulbs bloomed, they did not bloom as well or as quickly as those which were allowed to make their roots while in cold storage.

    Erin – So glad you like the arrangement. Thank you.

  8. Donna B. says:

    Ahhh yes… now I have this to add to my list of “things to do this weekend!” Yay!

    I definitely love forcing branches and bulbs [my hyacinth's are doing great!] I want to find more sources for blooming branches other than a border of forsythia [that lines mine and my neighbors properties]… There’s a beach near me that has those really nice white/pink ‘bradford pear’ tree’s… maybe I need to take my pruners out there.. hmmm.

    Maybe while the dogs get their walk on Saturday I’ll take trimmings!
    [devious plotting from a gardener... how silly! >D]

  9. badger gardener says:

    I like the branches before they bloom too, even though they are more spectacular when they burst open. My kids love to check on the buds daily to see what stage they are in. This is the season where I pull out my Asian-inspired dining table runner and place one of my forsythia arrangements there. I didn’t realize they were native to China. Now I can consider it my Chinese New Year decorating as they will likely be blooming about that time.

    Speaking of Spring, it feels like it outside today. I miss Wisconsin winters where I can just dream about my garden instead of feeling like I should be out working in it.

  10. Jesica says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Can you tell me where I can buy some forcing jars? I have looked and looked online, but only found one place selling them… and they wanted more for shipping to AK than the jars cost (people don’t seem to understand that we do have USPS here…).

    Jesica

  11. Kevin — delighted to have discovered your blog via referral from your cousin, Julie Blackman, also here in Portland OR. Can’t wait to try forcing some forsythia and hyacinths to chase away the January gloom!

  12. Donna B. – You can cut crab apple and witch hazel branches now, too. Give ‘em the same hammering as forsythia.

    badger gardener – Wacky weather here, too. Nearly 50 degrees today, and rain. Buh-bye, gorgeous snow.

    Jesica – I ordered my amethyst-colored hyacinths jars from a local home-decorating shop, and obtained the clear-glass ones from a local florist. But you can find all kinds of jars (at all kinds of prices) at Amazon.com. Probably you can find them at Ebay.com, too.

    Casey Cavasher – Nice to meet you. Forsythia is a cinch. Have fun!

  13. Sarah says:

    Has anyone had success with flowering quince? I have a large bush, and I love the color…a exotic tropical coral. I’m going to give it a try.

  14. Sarah – I’ve successfully forced flowering quince. You can see the shrubs here and here.

  15. Kate says:

    Awesome, Kevin. I love the fireworks and waterfall effect of forsythia in the springtime! I have the perfect South facing window for this… and don’t forget pussy willow… in water, it not only blooms but also helps other plant stems form roots!

    Peace,
    Kate

  16. Carole says:

    What a great idea, Kevin! I can always count on you to have some idea I’ve never heard of before to add to my modest gardening/cooking/decorating storehouse of knowledge.

  17. Pamela Terry says:

    Loved reading this! Can’t wait to try it. Forsythia is a fav. Don’t don’t know if it is the color ,shape or just the timing of blooming….probably all makes it wonderful!

  18. blake says:

    HelloKevin,

    I have always wanted to do this. So as soon as I read your directions, I left the computer, and went outside. Now I have a big beautiful vase filled with the branches, and a smaller one with the cuttings off the larger branches. I have a tea coming up in a couple of weeks, and it will be great if they have bloomed by then. Thanks for sharing this timely winter tip.

  19. Joyce says:

    Yes, I like to pot my hyacinths up in gravel as well. Even though it’s frosty here in Washington state, the crocuses and snowdrops are pipping. Spring can’t be far away!

  20. Lola says:

    Fantastic.

  21. Kim R says:

    Lovely, simply lovely. I can almost smell the hyacinths. Would this method work for lilacs or should I just wait on them? I really enjoy your blog. Loved the afternoon tea piece.
    Wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year!

  22. BjTreants says:

    Kevin Lee, before all the day light is gone for today, I will cut some branches to bring into the house. You just know the neatest ideas for adding color to our homes. Thank you, BjT

  23. KimH says:

    Just beautiful on this chilly winter day! Enjoyed this very much!

  24. Jude says:

    A collection of forsythia, quince, and dogwood all placed in a tall vase bloom and look beautiful together. I also like to put hyacinth bulb in assorted stem wine glasses. Put about an inch of water in first and place bulbs carefully in glazes. Keep eye on water level.

  25. Cathy Fruhauf says:

    Every year I force forsythia branches and take them to the income tax office where I work….cheers up the place and is a pleasant surprise for the waiting clients so early in the season…also take some to the senior center..

  26. Mary Anderson says:

    I am certainly going to try this tip. I can’t wait each year for my forsythia to bloom.

  27. dori says:

    I like the hyacinth job. Will it work for giant alliums? These are showing green in my Seattle garden right now.

  28. Dori – Yes, alliums can be forced indoors. The smaller types would look gorgeous in a window garden.

  29. badger gardener says:

    I went and checked on my garden during that Jan. thaw. I noticed that the carrots I left in the ground have been chomped upon. I was looking forward to them after you told us how they sweeten up over Winter. I’ll assume our resident bunny needed some fresh food more than we did, and she did leave one untouched, so I’ll forgive her.

    Also, during the thaw I heard that bold raccoon scratching at the outside of our roof gable. Luckily my husband’s wire-mesh reinforcements seem to have held up and I scared it off from my bedroom window just below. Haven’t heard it since but am guessing we will again. Here’s hoping we only hear it on the outside in all future encounters.

  30. caryn says:

    Hi Kevin, I love your website. I love forsythias too, but no southern exposure. Will any window work?

  31. badger – Better pull (and enjoy) that remaining carrot! I’ll keep my fingers crossed that your racoon remains outdoors. Squirrels have been entering the fireplace wall of my music room. The climb one of the shutters and then enter through an opening in the old “yankee” gutter. Lily the Beagle can hear them in the wall, and it is driving her crazy.

    caryn – You can force forsythia (and witch hazel and crabapple) branches in any exposure that is fully light. They have bloomed for me not only in southern exposures, but in east- and west-facing windows, too.

  32. badger gardener says:

    Good luck w/ those squirrels. Poor Lily. Penny, our terrier mix was not the least bit concerned w/ our raccoon when it was upstairs.

    I think I missed my opportunity to get that carrot pulled up as the recent cold front brought a bizarre form of precipitation with it. It reminded me that the Inuit people in the far North have over a hundred words for snow. It wasn’t quite sleet, freezing rain, or snow, but a weird hybrid. It left behind this layer of ice unlike any I can remember seeing. When you look outside it looks like a dusting of snow, but when you walk on it you don’t leave any footprints ,as if walking on reinforced glass. Even my neighbors who usually keep their driveways and sidewalks meticulously clear in Winter, have not even made an attempt at it clean-up. It came rolling in during the final quarter of the Packers losing playoff effort ( not a great combination of factors for highway safety here in WI). 2 days later it is still solid, so I don’t think the bunny is getting that carrot either. Maybe I’ll have another chance.

  33. Lisa Kadison says:

    What synchronicity! Just yesterday I was inspired to clip some branches from my quince bush for forcing. With this mild weather, the buds on the branches look like they’re ready to burst, so I sense the blooms will take days, not weeks, to appear. Thanks for sharing your lovely photos and tips!

  34. Amanda W says:

    Awesome!! Didn’t know this could be done at all! I came on for a French bread recipe, and have been sidetracked for the last 30 minutes :) . Such a great site! Thanks for sharing!

  35. Christina Giordano says:

    Thanks for reminding me about bringing forsythia branches in to force. I clipped some branches yesterday and am looking forward to the blooms to come in February.

  36. garden ninja says:

    I think I love you! Have been here 3 nights in a row. Love everything here! Thank you

  37. Kathy Fober says:

    I rescued some magnolia branches from a friend once and they forced beautifully! I’m going to try witch hazel per your suggestion. I also have a crab tree that I will try forcing. Thanks for the suggestions. I have had amaryliss for many years and had about 50 at one time. When I was about to pot them up they had a white mold or mealy bugs all over them and i threw them all out and now I’m starting my collection over. New varieties are always fun. These flowers get me through the winter!

  38. Judy Brown says:

    My hyacinths bloomed beautifully under your direction. The whole room is fragrant with their scent.

    Next, off to clip some crab apple branches.

  39. Kelly Brown says:

    Kevin–Great post, as always. We force magnolias and crabapples. Your post inspired me to try the hyacinths.

  40. Jessica says:

    Hi! Can you please point me in the direction to your blog on, “forcing tulips to grow inside.” If one exists of course. :)
    If not, would you mind walking me through the process of doing so?
    Thanks!

  41. Hi Jessica – Here ’tis: How I Force Tulips for Winter Bloom

  42. Jude says:

    Just a note on a typo: I know you meant “cambium layer” instead of “cambian layer” in your discussion of green tissue beneath the bark. I do enjoy reading those teachable moments and appreciate your website for its many hints and suggestions.

  43. Hi Jude – Thanks for alerting me to the incorrect spelling. Fixed now!

  44. Helene says:

    As a North Easterner, i thank you for your hint about “forcing” blooms early with tree and shrub twigs. When they bloom, it will bring Spring into being much earlier. BY the way, my indoor hibiscus is still blooming. It’s so great to see so many blooms during the winter months.

  45. Sandra says:

    Hi Kevin,
    One year I cut some branches from a tree for a sweet little ceramic bird to rest on. I brought them in before Christmas and added Christmas decorations and then some spring ribbons. One day I looked at the bird and the branches were leafing out!!! This was amazing since they had not been in water since I cut them. Sorry, I don’t remember what type of brances they were, but what a lovely spring surprise!

  46. Leslie D says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the reminder for forcing shrubs – I had not considered the quince, but it would be lovely. I love reading the comments from all your fans. Your egg-bread recipe sounds great – too good to resist. I’m looking at heavy snow resting on all the trees and shrubs here – very pretty, but not if you have to shovel it off the driveway.

    Your blog is so cheering and informative. Thanks for all you share with us. I’m going to wade out to get some Forsythia when I am able to get through the snow. Like everyone else I’m looking forward to Spring and more of your ideas.

  47. Patsy Price says:

    I didn’t know this. I also left my begonias out to freeze. I have too many plants to bring in and not enough space for them all. Next year I hope to have a green house to store some of my plants and maybe swap them out during the winter. Thanks for this idea.

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