Bursting Blooms

By Eve Pranis

Although winter's chilly grip still lingers in many parts of the country, your students can invite an early spring and dig deeper into learning. Imagine coaxing buds on bare branches to come to life right in your classroom.

Once deciduous trees and shrubs have had a period of leafless winter dormancy outdoors, spring warmth causes sap to flow, buds to swell, and leaves and flowers to emerge. To entice branches to bloom indoors, cut 1- to 2-foot sections about six weeks before they'd naturally flower in your area (see below). If you're not sure of flowering or leafing-out times, challenge your students to research what blooms when, or to experiment by cutting branches at different times.

Scrape a 3-inch strip with a knife or scissors along the branch bottom, then place it in lukewarm water for a day. Next, move the cutting to a container of cool water and leave it in indirect light. Change the water and, if possible, cut an inch off the stem each week. Invite your students to mist the branches several times a week to simulate spring rains and keep the buds moist and full. When the buds open in three to six weeks, move the cuttings to a bright location.

Branching Out: Buds and Beyond

  • Cut or have students bring in a variety of branches from unidentified trees and shrubs. Invite them to observe, draw, and compare the arrangements of buds, leaf scars, and other characteristics. Once leaves are out, they might use a tree and shrub key or an outdoor hunt to figure out what they've got.
  • Consider forcing branches under a variety of conditions (water temperatures or light conditions, for instance.)
  • Predict, then measure and compare the rates at which different branches burst into bloom.
  • Have students guess how each type of plant might be pollinated, based on the characteristics of emerging flowers. (Those pollinated by insects and other pollinators tend to have bright, showy flowers. Wind-pollinated flowers tend to have less conspicuous flowers.)

Early-flowering trees and shrubs (cut in late January/February):
ash, azalea, birch, elm, forsythia, hazelnut, maple, mulberry, redbud, plum, pussy willow, sumac

Later-flowering trees and shrubs (cut in late February/March):
apple, cherry, crabapple, elderberry, honey locust, honeysuckle, magnolia, mountain ash

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