Winter Bloom Forcing: Tips On Forcing Shrubs To Bloom In Winter

By: Jackie Carroll

If gloomy winter days have you down, why not brighten your days by forcing flowering shrub branches into bloom. As with forced bulbs, forced branches bloom just when we need their bright colors the most – usually mid- to late winter. This is an easy project that doesn’t require any special skills, and watching the blossoms open is fascinating. All you need for forcing flowering shrubs is hand pruners or a sharp knife and a container of water, so let’s get started.

Forcing Shrubs to Bloom in Winter

The first step to force branches during winter is collecting the stems. Choose branches with fat buds that indicate the shrub has broken dormancy. The branches will bloom no matter where you make the cuts, but you can help the shrub along by use good pruning practices when you cut them. This means selecting branches from crowded parts of the shrub, and making the cuts about one-quarter inch above a side branch or bud.

Cut the branches 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm.) long and take a few more than you need because there are usually a few that refuse to cooperate with winter bloom forcing. Once you get them indoors, you can trim them to suit your container and arrangement.

After trimming the stems to the desired length, prepare the cut ends by crushing them with a hammer or making a 1-inch (2.5 cm.) vertical slit at the bottom of the branch with a sharp knife. This makes it easier for the stems to absorb water.

Place the branches in a vase of water and set them in a cool, dimly-lit location. Change the water every day or two to prevent bacteria from clogging up the stems. When the buds begin to swell and open, move them into bright, indirect light. The blossoms will continue to bloom for two to five weeks, depending on the type of shrub.

Floral preservatives will help prevent the growth of bacteria, which prevent the uptake of water. You can purchase a floral preservative or use one of these recipes:

  • 2 cups (480 mL) of lemon-lime soda
  • ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL) of chlorine bleach
  • 2 cups (480 mL) of water


  • 2 tablespoons (30 mL) lemon juice or vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon (2.5 mL) of chlorine bleach
  • 1 quart (1 L) of water

Shrubs for Winter Bloom Forcing

Here is a list of shrubs and small trees that work well for winter forcing:

  • Azalea
  • Crabapple
  • Purple leaf plum
  • Forsythia
  • Quince
  • Witch Hazel
  • Flowering cherry
  • Flowering dogwood
  • Pussy Willow
  • Flowering pear
  • Jasmine

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Read more about General Shrub Care

Protecting trees and shrubs in winter

Minnesota's harsh climate can cause severe damage to landscape plants.

  • Winter sun, wind and cold temperatures can
    • bleach and dry out evergreen foliage
    • damage bark
    • injure or kill branches, flower buds, and roots.
  • Snow and ice can break branches and topple entire trees.
  • Salt used for deicing streets, sidewalks and parking lots is harmful to landscape plants.
  • Winter food shortages force rodents and deer to feed on bark, twigs, flower buds and leaves, injuring and sometimes killing trees and shrubs.

Here are steps you can take to protect trees and shrubs and minimize injury.

Make the Most of Your Garden During the Quiet Season

With a dusting of frost over a muted winter garden, one’s eye is drawn to the different textures in the landscape. To highlight texture, choose a variety of plants with different growth habits, such as fine-textured grasses and sturdy-branched shrubs. For most climates, it’s best to wait until spring to plant, but winter can be the ideal time to make a plan and choose plant varieties. Here, delicate branches, round seed heads from summer flowers, and wispy tufts of ornamental grasses create an interesting play of textures.

2. Showcase Garden Structure

Winter gardens can have quiet, peaceful simplicity. Clean up moldering warm-season plants, and spread a fresh layer of bark to accentuate the geometric forms of evergreen shrubs and trees. Take advantage of the absence of perennials to reassess areas of the garden that could benefit from evergreens planted for privacy screening in spring.

3. Grow Cool-Season Crops

For colder regions, grow cool-season edibles in raised beds under a cold frame. Many edible greens, such as ‘Red Russian’ kale and purple cabbage, are ornamental enough to grow as part of container displays.

4. Plant Winter Bloomers

In temperate climates, refresh tired garden borders with winter-flowering bedding plants such as red and white cyclamens, pastel-colored violas, and pale green and white hellebores. Near the front door, plant winter-blooming shrubs like holiday-favorite ‘Yuletide’ sasanqua camellia (Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’, USDA zones 7 to 10 find your zone), which produces crimson blooms from late fall through early January.

In colder climates, turn to white-flowering ‘Winter’s Snowman’ camellia (C. x ‘Winter’s Snowman’, zones 6 to 10) or red-flowering ‘Spring’s Promise’ camellia (C. japonica‘Spring’s Promise’, zones 6 to 10), both of which are hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 23.3 degrees Celsius.

5. Plan to Relax Outdoors

In warm-winter climates — or with the help of outdoor heaters — make the most of your winter garden by setting up your outdoor space for outdoor lounging. Decorate an outdoor table with potted dwarf conifers and forced paperwhites (Narcissus spp.). Hang a string of lights or bring out a few candles to make the space inviting.

6. Feed Birds and Hang Nest Boxes for Spring

Wild birds bring life to gardens as they flit between shrubs while hunting for bugs and seeds. In the coldest months, when food sources can be scarce, birds particularly benefit from supplemental sources of seed, suet (animal fat) and nectar. Hang a bird feeder in your garden or sprinkle seeds on the ground in a sheltered area. To prepare for birds choosing nesting sites in spring, mount birdhouses in your garden.

7. Add Color With Bark and Berries

Brighten winter garden beds with plants chosen for vivid bark and berry colors. Planted in front of blue-green conifers, the branches of ‘Midwinter Fire’ bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea‘Midwinter Fire’, zones 3 to 7) nearly glow. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata, zones 3 to 9) and other plants in the holly genus are great choices for winter berries.

Choose plants at nurseries now since you’ll have the best selection among varieties with highly decorative fruits in bright red, orange and gold. In cold regions, keep the shrubs in pots on the porch until planting in spring.

8. Plant One or Two Cheerful Containers

Add interest and welcoming color to entryways with potted winter arrangements. In hard-winter regions, choose a heavyweight ceramic container that can withstand subfreezing temperatures without cracking. Combine evergreen foliage, such as boxwoods or conifers, with winter-blooming flowers or branches of preserved berries.

9. Plan Ahead for Spring

Take advantage of the quiet season in the garden to get ready for spring planting and to map out garden projects for the upcoming year. On mild winter days, get ahead on garden chores like mulching beds, clearing perennials of dead stalks and spreading gravel on walkways. On rainy days or in snowy climates, stay indoors and organize sheds, condition garden tools and bookmark plant catalogs for your spring garden.

The Gardener's Eden

Forced Blossoms – Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, forced in a turquoise vase…

What a gift! A beautifully warm, clear, blue-sky day in midwinter. I am itching to pull on my boots and go play. The frost coated snow drifts outside sparkle and tempt like cream-puffs with sugar icing. I have so much mid-winter pruning to do. This week, I will begin with my own garden, and next I will move on to a few others in my care. One of my favorite parts of midwinter pruning is the left-overs. Oh how I adore all of the gnarly, crooked branches loaded with swollen buds: pink apple blossoms vibrant purple redbud intoxicatingly fragrant vernal witch hazel and my favorite, the spicy-seductive bodnant viburnum. My cellar is already loaded with branches, and I am greedy for more, more, more!

So, out come the hand pruners, the bow and folding saws, the oil can and whetstone. This is prime-time for thinning and shaping the branches of deciduous fruit and ornamental trees. If there is any garden task I truly adore, (and I am passionate about many!), it is pruning. I love the art of sculpting living things and I am eager to get outdoors after so many weeks of cold weather. One of my clients has nick-named me Edwina Scissorhands. It’s no joke. Edward and I have a lot in common. I frequently write about pruning and last year I presented my first seminars on the subject. You can read last year’s essay and notes on pruning basics by clicking through here…

Of course, you needn’t be an obsessive pruner to enjoy forcing blossoms. All you need is a pair of sharp, clean by-pass pruners and a spring-blooming tree or shrub, (see some good candidates below). This is the perfect time to harvest yourself a little bit of May in January. Now, because I am a professional gardner, I am going to emphasize that you must do this correctly, especially if you are working in your garden, (remember never take too many branches from any one specimen!). But even if you are harvesting wild pussy willow in an abandoned lot, think of this as an opportunity to learn or practice an important horticultural skill. Have a good look at the branch that you are about to cut before you snip, snip. Do you know what it is? Try to id your branch before you cut. Are the twigs or buds lined up opposite one another on the branch, or are they alternating like a pole ladder? If they are opposite, cut straight across the branch, ( about 1/4 inch or so), just above the pair of buds beneath the length of branch you are cutting, (not too close or you may injure the buds, not too far away or the stem will die-back leaving an unsightly stub). If you are cutting from a specimen with alternating buds, cut at a shallow angle, sloping away from the bud, (this is for shedding water, to prevent rot of the bud ). If you are intimidated, just go on out and practice on some scrub or brambles first, then move on to more desirable plants. This is fun – trust me …

If you have never forced branches before, be on the look out for swollen buds on warm January days. Sweet-scented witch hazel, early blooming viburnum and forsythia are all great choices for forcing. Crab apples and other ornamental fruit trees are very popular with florists, but you may also want to try quince, azalea, redbud, juneberry, magnolia, and of course, fuzzy pussy-willow. Leave the lilacs and summer bloomers alone, (you want small flowered, early blooming shrubs like plum, for example, with full, swollen buds), and remember that you will get better results if you harvest on an above-freezing day, (the work is also more pleasant this way!).

Once you harvest your branches, bring them inside and pound the stems with a mallet or hammer, (see picture below). Not only is this kind-of fun, but it’s also important to help the branch with water uptake. Collect the branches in a bucket of slightly cool – room temperature water, and place them in a cool room with low light or, ideally, a cellar. After a few days, bring out a few branches at a time, and arrange them in vases filled with water. Once moved to warmer rooms, the buds will swell and the petals will slowly unfurl. This is such a beautiful process, and if you keep your house on the cool-side, you can prolong the show. If you change the vase water every few days, many forced flowering branches will last a month or longer. Adding a bit, (just a teaspoon per gallon), of environmentally safe bleach-substitute will keep the water fresh and also aid in extending the life of the blossoms…

Pounding woody stems helps with water uptake in the blossoming branches

How lovely to enjoy the beauty of two seasons in one! I wish you should smell the bodnant viburnum blossoms in my kitchen. I wonder if there will ever be a way to transmit fragrance via the internet? Only the good smells, of course! Well, I am off to harvest more branches now. I will meet you back here soon…

Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express, written consent. Please contact me before using images or text excerpts from this site. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

6 Rockin’ Red Plants for Winter Gardens

Sparkleberry Winterberry
(Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’)

This cultivar produces bright red fruits that attract birds during winter. Plant with Ilex ‘Apollo’ (the male cultivar) for the best fruit set. Use it as a small tree if space is limited.

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA zones 5 to 9 find your zone)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 5 to 9 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Tolerates wet soils attracts birds

Winter Red Winterberry
(Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’)

This is a better selection for gardeners in cold regions — and it’s more compact. The male cultivar for this plant is I. ‘Southern Gentleman’. It makes for an eye-catching border and is very low maintenance.

For winter containers branches of winterberry holly look fantastic mixed with pine boughs, fir tips and other evergreens, and they last a long time indoors, too.

In the landscape birds will eat the red berries — watch for robins, cardinals, juncoes, grosbeaks and cedar waxwings.

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 3 to 9)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 6 to 8 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Adapted to swamps and wetlands attracts birds

English Holly
(Ilex aquifolium)

There are male and female plants in the species both flower, but the females produce berries. In the Pacific Northwest, this species is listed as invasive, so check with your local cooperative extension office before you buy.

Origin: Europe
Where it will grow: Hardy to 0 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 7 to 9)
Water requirement: Medium soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 30 to 50 feet
Benefits and tolerances: Attracts birds you can shear it to make a hedge

Redtwig Dogwood
(Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’)

With its colorful branches, redtwig dogwood makes an outstanding focal point in winter, especially when paired with ornamental grasses.

What would a winter container be without a dash of red? I love birch branches, but they are hard to find and break easily. Use redtwig dogwood instead, adding it to your pots by the entry or front porch the branches can also be trimmed and added to smaller arrangements indoors, too.

Origin: This is a cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 3 to 8)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: 6 to 10 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Attracts birds deer resistant good for erosion control, as a screen plant and in a rain garden

Donald Wyman Crabapple
(Malus ‘Donald Wyman’)

The crabapple tree in my yard is loaded with bright red berries that attract scores of birds, including flocks of cedar waxwings.

Origin: Discovered at Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University
Where it will grow: Hardy to -30 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 4 to 8)
Water requirement: Medium soil
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: 20 feet tall and wide
Benefits and tolerances: Spring flowers the fruit attracts wildlife has good disease resistance

Winter King Hawthorne
(Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’)

Named a Gold Medal Plant by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, this award-winning cultivar is noteworthy for its abundant fruit.

Any tree that looks this good in the middle of winter deserves applause. ‘Winter King’ is in a class of its own with a great form and year-round interest.

There are thorns, but thankfully the tree requires practically no pruning. Interestingly, birds much prefer crabapples and winterberries and leave this fruit on the branch.

Spring-Flowering Viburnums

The classic Korean spice viburnum has clusters of powerfully sweet-scented spring flowers.

Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) – The searching clove-like fragrance of Korean spice viburnum’s tubular, pinkish-white blooms is a welcome and warming presence in the mid-spring garden. The domed flower clusters typically open around the first of May in USDA Zones 5 and 6. Korean spice’s hybrid Judd viburnum (Viburnum x juddii) offers similar flowers and grayer, less aphid-prone leaves, in a similar, 6- to 8-foot package. The flowers of fragrant snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum), another carlesii hybrid, are waxier and of heavier substance, and occur in larger, denser, almost spherical clusters. For tighter spaces there’s Viburnum carlesii ‘Compactum’, which matures at about 3 feet. Most forms and hybrids of Korean spice viburnum prosper in full sun from zones 5 to 8, and turn smoky burgundy tones in fall. Fragrant snowball is slightly less hardy, to zone 6.

Watch the video: How To Get An Amaryllis To Rebloom

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