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I live in Massachusetts, where we have approximately three feet of snow in the yard, and the temperature has been well below freezing nearly every day for the last two months. In an article in yesterday's local newspaper, a horticulturist wrote that even though our forsythias will likely flower later than usual this year, a branch can be forced to bloom now by bringing it inside. Is that true? If so, what would be the proper procedure?

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Yes you can.

This actually an old German Advent/Christmas tradition in honour of St. Barbara's Day (Dec. 04) and it's usually done with branches of cherry or apple trees. Forsythia will work fine, too. Branches cut on 12/04 should flower by Christmas.

The basic idea is to take branches that have had "winter" (that is, some frost), bring them inside and "make them think it's spring".

So follow these steps:

  • Cut healthy branches from either fruit trees like apple, cherry, plum or pear or spring-flowering shrubs like lilac or forsythia. If your winter has been too mild (e.g. when cutting on 12/04 according to tradition), place them for 12-24 hours in the freezer. This should not be necessary in your case.
  • Soak the entire branches over night in cool or slightly lukewarm water. A bathtub works well. Please do not dump frozen branches in warm water!
  • Re-cut the stems (splicing and/or gently hammering them is optional) and place in a vase with fresh water. There are two schools of thought on how to proceed now:

    • a) First leave the vase in a cool place until you see the flower buds swell, then move to the warmer living room or similar or
    • b) Place the vase in the living area right away.
  • Change the water every few days (and clean the vase now and then). Do not place the branches near a heat source like an oven, cooler temperatures around 15°C/60°F are sufficient (think "spring", not "summer"!). Misting the branches can be beneficial to extend the life of the flowers or in a rather dry environment. Expect the first flowers after ca. 3 weeks, but it may take longer.

Hint: This is actually a really nice project for kids, too, either in December (then include a bit of the christian mythology, see link above) or when you are really sick of winter and desperate for a bit of "spring" in the house.

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    "Sick of winter and desperate for a bit of spring in the house" is exactly how we feel! I'll put on some boots and trudge on out and get started! How much light should they get once in the vase? I have almost no direct sunlight in the house. I do have grow lights, unless indirect sun will work. – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Mar 3 '15 at 0:08
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    You are not actually "growing" the branches and they have no leaves, so no special need for grow lights (no photosynthesis). Too much sunlight could even be counter-productive if it dries the branches out. Put them in a convenient spot and you are set. If you can place the vase in a light spot once the flowers start to open do so, otherwise don't bother. – Stephie Mar 3 '15 at 0:18
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    You said to freeze the branches for 12-24 hours if it's been a light winter. You then said "Please do not dump frozen branches in warm water!" ... This may seem like a stupid question, but should we then thaw the branch out and then put it into the water? If so, how long should we let it thaw? Also, is this a way to start a new tree? – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Mar 3 '15 at 1:26
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    You thaw them until they are not frozen any more - the branches become flexible again. I have never meassured the time, but would guestimate perhaps an hour or two? This is not really a recommended way of starting a new tree, at least if you cut branches from a fruit tree, because fruit tres are usually grafted on a special rootstock and it's unclear wheter the fruit branches grow into a strong, resillient tree, root-wise speaking. You can put the branches in soil if they develop roots, though, and see what happens.... – Stephie Mar 3 '15 at 6:04
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    @Paulster2 If you use this method on a fruit tree the odds are very slim of getting a healthy plant. Fruit tree breeding focuses principally on producing good fruit. Questions of strong health roots are ignored because it's just going to be grafted to a good rootstock anyway. HOWEVER, other plants like Forsythia or Lilac are mostly grown on their own roots, so there is a better likelihood that the genetics for good roots are there. Forsythia can definitely be started in this way. – GardenerJ Mar 4 '15 at 17:50

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