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NATURE’S TURN: Halfway to spring; Wild and domestic pleasures

Forcing plants to awake from winter dormancy well before their season is a wonderful experiment at home and in educational settings.

February 2 – 15, 2015

Groundhog Day marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Hemlock trees are broadcasting their small seeds, attached to diaphanous, golden wings. Carried on the wind, we find them scattered on the snow. Red squirrels take seeds directly from the cones, a riveting and entertaining sight as the sinuous, furry acrobats forage for hours these frigid days.

Birch cones, plump and dry, break into brown to gray scales shaped like airplanes and swifts. They too paint the snow, interspersed with tiny, winged seeds that were tucked under each scale – at first glance looking like wheat germ.

Red squirrels are feasting on hemlock tree seeds deftly removed from the tree's cones. The acrobats gnaw cones off the twigs and gnaw each scale off the cone, to eat the seed underneath it. Scales drop, as if thrown off, littering the snow under a favorite tree. Only one seed got away, found in the center of this image.
Red squirrels are feasting on hemlock tree seeds deftly removed from the tree’s cones. The acrobats gnaw cones off the twigs and gnaw each scale off the cone, to eat the seed underneath it. Scales drop, as if thrown off, littering the snow under a favorite tree. Only one seed got away, found in the center of this image.

Halfway to spring, flower and leaf buds, completely formed on woody stems of many species of shrubs and trees, will readily flower and leaf out when brought indoors. Known as “forcing”, stems are pruned from the parent and placed in a vase of water. Forcing may be done anytime after a stretch of freezing weather. However, the earlier they are cut the longer the time before buds open.

This year, I cut forsythia on December 28. Green and yellow floral tissue, tightly wrapped, emerged from the dry-looking brownish buds after about ten days. A gradual opening into full bloom occurred by the third week. In a cool environment, flowers last for weeks. In very warm spaces, like at Castle Street Café where forsythia begins its season every year on Groundhog Day, forcing is quicker and full bloom time shorter before blossom drop. There, successions of stems provide flowers until they appear in the landscape. Surprised patrons have asked, “Are they real?”

I’ve pruned star magnolia at winter solstice time and offered a luxurious spring bouquet to a friend on his birthday, January 31. Using pruning shears, make a diagonal cut, exposing a large surface of the stem to the water. In addition, on the bottom of sizeable stems, cut an inch long vertical split for optimum water uptake. Place in cold water. Re-cut and change the water every week for longest bloom time. Add water as needed: flowers drink a lot. As the season progresses the interval between bringing stems indoors and full bloom will shorten. No sunny window required, just warmth.

Forsythia in bud and bloom: flowers tenderly excite our eyes.
Forsythia in bud and bloom: flowers tenderly excite our eyes.

Forcing plants to awake from winter dormancy well before their season is a wonderful experiment at home and in educational settings. Lilac and saucer magnolia flowers are smaller than when left on the plant to blossom in springtime. I’ve not tried hydroponic feeding. From forest and field, staghorn sumac produces robust leaves, the furry stem a beautiful contrast to the unfurling of wrinkled, big green leaves. Red maple’s vivid red, round buds become demure flowers. Don’t wait! Branch out, burst into bloom!

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