Whitesburg KY
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Weather upsets nature as spring flowers bloom

Christmas colors were not limited to tree lights this year. December’s unseasonably warm weather has caused some flowers to bloom early, upsetting nature’s clock.

Area gardeners and others report that this year’s powerful El Niño-influenced December that has produced highs in the 60s and 70s is faking out some flowers, making them act as if it’s spring.

Then again, the weather has been spring-like.

“It’s kind of nuts,” said Paul Cappiello, executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Oldham County, last week.

Yew Dell, for example, has blooming Christmas rose plants that, despite their name, usually don’t bloom until well after Christmas in Kentucky but have been showing their delicate white petals and yellow stamen for three weeks already, he said.

A bright yellow February Gold daffodil normally blooms in late winter but popped out earlier this week, he said.

“They are thinking winter is over,” he said.

At the same time, Cappiello notes that native beech, oak and maple trees don’t seem to be budding out yet. They know better, having evolved over thousands of years, to hold out for a longer cold period before bursting forth with new growth. That’s generally the case with native wildflowers, too, and non-native plants that come from regions with very similar conditions, he added.

Nature’s response to the crazy weather makes for some good conversation. “We do what everybody else does,” he said. “We watch.”

There are few other options. But there are consequences.

Any buds that open now won’t likely survive the winter, which still is expected to produce killer frosts. In fact, temperatures are forecast to be near or below freezing later this week (hitting 30 degrees in Letcher County Thursday night, then dropping to 25 degrees Friday night). Cappiello said he expects a popular flowering bush – big leaf hydrangeas with their large white or blue round flowers – will be in trouble. Their buds are already starting to swell, putting them at risk of freezing. The plants themselves can survive but don’t expect as many flowers in the spring, he cautioned.

That’s what worries David Hayes of Richmond, who grows peach trees.

“This is the third year they’ve been in trouble,” he said. “This past year I think the record cold winter did them in, but I’m not sure. The winter before last, it was a late, hard frost after they had already bloomed. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the weather will get cold again and they’ll still bloom in spring, but I’m not holding my breath. They should have a lot of energy stored up since they haven’t fruited in two seasons.”

The National Weather Service predicts a warmer winter for much of North America, including Kentucky and Indiana. It credits El Niño, which is a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that can drive weather changes globally.

Master Gardener Noel Rueff of Louisville has observed pink flowers blooming “like crazy” on bushes growing in the median of Interstate-64 in eastern Jefferson County. She said she normally doesn’t see them flower until March.

And the yellow forsythia is out “everywhere,” she said.

“You can sometimes see the forsythias in late January,” she said. “I never see them blooming this time of year.”

She noted other unusual weather, including a documented greater frequency of heavy downpours, and wondered whether climate change may also be at work.

“Gardeners pay attention,” she said. “They know the weather is very confusing these days.”

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