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Flowers in December a Sign of Climate Out of Balance

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Ah, Christmas time!  I went walking through my neighborhood and was charmed by the strings of lights illuminating porches, the inflated Santa, the plastic reindeer, the snow and ice.  But then I saw flowers emerging from the ground, near a cherry tree in full bloom.  

It made me confused. Why are flowers blooming in December in Baltimore?  The wildflowers called snowdrops normally emerge from the ground in February or March. And most cherry trees, of course, bloom in March or April; although a few do flower in the fall.

“It definitely seems odd this year,” said Theresa Crimmins, a plant ecologist at the University of Arizona and Director of the National Phenology Network, which studies which seasons plants bloom in across the U.S. 

“All across the country, people have reported things flowering this fall – this past October and November, specifically – that they never reported in the past flowering in October and November,” she said.  "Things like chokecherries and mountain magnolia were in flower this past fall in North Carolina, which is not normal. On Long Island, people reported clematis and false lily of the valley flowering in the fall, and those are definitely springtime species."   

Her theory is that the increasingly off-calendar blossoming of plants is being driven by the chaos of climate change.

For example, Maryland experienced a much warmer November than normal this year. This may have confused some plants and made them think that December was springtime, or that fall was still summer, and so their normal fall blooming slid back a few weeks into Christmastime.

Jon Traunfeld is Director of the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center. He said there is no question that climate change is increasingly throwing off the normal blooming and pollination schedules of plants. When flowers bloom prematurely and get killed by cold and frost, it often means fewer blossoms and less fruit in the spring, he said. That can starve bees, butterflies and other pollinators that feed on flowers – as well as animals that feed on the insects and fruit.

“We’re going to have a disconnect between plant blooming times and the emergence of insects that depend on those plants for nectar and pollen,” said Traunfeld. “Those effects kind of multiply as you go up through the ecological web. And so we are just in uncharted territories.”

However, it should be noted that not all cold-weather blossoms are abnormal. Snowdrops, for example, typically are the first flowers to emerge in late winter or early spring, even as the snows melt. But they don’t usually sprout and bloom before the first snows in December, as I witnessed this year.

For sale in many nurseries today are genetically-modified plants that bloom year-round, including so-called “encore” azaleas. The cherry tree I witnessed blooming in the snow last week along Overhill Road in North Baltimore was of a hybrid variety – called autumn cherry – that normally flowers in October, as well as in the spring. This year, perhaps because of the unusually warm weather, it bloomed in November and December – which was strange.

Peter Bieneman is President of the Maryland Horticultural Society.

“Those of us who are aware of climate change, we do react when we see early blooms – it surprises us,” said Bienenman. “When something is out of sync, when something is blooming when we don’t think it should be, it can set off an alarm. It make us question: 'What is happening'?”

What is happening is that a rapidly-changing climate – knocked out of balance by vast amounts of greenhouse gas pollution -- is throwing gardeners, farmers, and everyone else into a kind of upside-down world. In this new reality, Baltimore’s Christmases are heading rapidly toward Mississippi; and the North Pole is rapidly heading toward open water.

Perhaps we should give Santa a jet ski for Christmas.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.