By Carol Stocker
Boston Globe Garden Columnist
If you are waiting for spring flowers, you can give them a head start by cutting some one-to-three-foot branches of early blooming shrubs and trees and bringing them inside to open in a vase ahead of schedule. This is called "forcing," though garden maven Martha Stewart thinks this term sounds too violent and instead likens it more to gentle persuasion. In either case, the flowering branches feel that spring has arrived early, and so will you.
The most common local shrub that is great for forcing is forsythia, which quickly morphs from naked stalks to yellow bells. My absolute favorite, however, is the more unusual Chinese witch hazel because it is the earliest shrub here. If you cut it during a thaw in January or February, it will usually open its scented yellow flowers within 24 hours.
Prune branches on a warm day. March bloomers such as pussy willows, pieris, very early azaleas and rhododendrons and February daphne flower quicker indoors than April bloomers, such as magnolias, serviceberry, Japanese quince, Korean abelia and cherry or pears, which may require weeks of patience. Shrubs that usually bloom in May will probably not force at all, unless you cut them in April.
Trees and shrubs that leaf out in the spring before they flower will produce only leaves if you force them, but these can have their own beauty. Many people enjoy the forcing red maple or copper beech leaves for arranging. Others force the dangling catkins of early blooming corkscrew or weeping willows, birch trees or hazelnuts such as the contorted "Henry Lauder's Walking Stick" for artistic bouquets. Have fun experimenting with prunings from different woody plants and see what you get.
When you bring cut branches into the house, give the stem ends a fresh diagonal cut immediately before placing them in three inches of hot water and let them stand for 30 minutes. Then add cool water to fill the container. Change the water every few days.
If you find you enjoy having vases of flower arranging material in February and March, consider planting some of the more unusual shrubs that are good for forcing, such as witch hazel or corkscrew willow. In fact, cut corkscrew willow or forsythia in a vase of water will sometimes grow roots in water so you can plant them when the real spring arrives.