Early Blooms Lovely, but Troubling

A preternaturally warm winter has coaxed bulbs and trees into early bloom. But what are the botanical repercussions?

It’s been a lovely winter—few truly bitter days, lots of mild, 50+ patio afternoons, and—weirdest of all—thunderstorms and tornadoes in January(!) According to NOAA, January 2012 was the fourth-warmest on record in the lower 48 states—with average temperatures more than 5 degrees above normal.

In Washington, D.C, cherry trees are beginning to bloom a month ahead of schedule. And the photo below was taken here in Nashville on New Year’s Day:

photo by Iris Baker

That’s freaking weird.

Daffodils and crocuses were in full bloom last week, and cherry trees and hyacinths are going full bore this morning, as you’ll see in the photos below. Out of curiosity, I checked out last-year’s “Spring in the Hood” photo series on this blog to see when I posted each photo.* See comparisons below, for spring of 2011:

(*Note: this is not entirely scientific, as I did not record the exact date of first emergence for both years. Still, it’s clear that things are blooming a week or two earlier this year than in 2011.)

Spring in the ‘Hood, Part 1 - Buttercups and crocuses: March 3, 2011

Buttercups and crocuses, 2012:  Feb 21

Spring in the ‘Hood, Part 2- Cherry trees: March 9, 2011

Cherry trees, 2012: February 27

Spring in the ‘Hood, Part 3Hyacinths: March 11, 2011

Hyacinths, 2012: February 27

In the Northeast and Midwest, the trend has been even more stark. Horticulturalists at New York’s botanical gardens have never seen the camellias and dawn viburnums flowering so early. Spring bulbs are emerging two to four weeks earlier than usual, at a time when the ground would ordinarily be frozen.

Is the early show a problem? Possibly, says this NYTimes article about the mild winter and early blooms in the Northeast. There’s certainly a heightened risk that a late freeze (like the one that killed and damaged thousands of trees in the South and Midwest in April of 2007) will do serious harm to farms and gardens. Seed generation and pollination could be affected by early blooming. And we’re unlikely to enjoy the kind of prolonged, magnificent bloom show that we saw last spring.

It’s hard to say whether this mild winter is a fluke or a harbinger of things to come. It is pretty interesting that the USDA recently updated its map of US hardiness zones, which the USDA says “is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States.

“This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period,” the USDA release says. “The new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.”

Inconclusive when it comes to the question of climate change. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have to give up on lilacs and worry less about bringing in the elephant ear in winter (which I don’t actually do). Maybe it’s time to plant a few palms.

Meanwhile, right here, right now, I’ll be enjoying a little sunshine on the patio, digging into the garden a few weeks earlier than usual, and spending many mornings lying in the mud, playing with my Easy Macro attachment for the iPhone camera—the better to bring you wide-open flower porn.

Related post: Fun with Easy Marco and Buttercups

Related post: The Future of Zone 6 Gardens? :-)

3 thoughts on “Early Blooms Lovely, but Troubling

  1. I see what you mean by flower porn. Those pictures are gorgeous.

    Incidentally, a recent poll (Gallup, I thinK?) found that 69% of Americans attribute the weird weather to systemic climate change, that is, almost 70% finally believe in global warming, up from 50% just a year ago. Sad to think that massive change has to hit people personally before they’ll think. It would be nice if the critical thinking skills were there all the time.

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