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Spring? In February?

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

What will happen to the plants and flowers that are tricked into opening early during this shockingly warm February? I’ve heard this question a lot this winter. You’ve certainly seen the daffodils and cherry tree blossoms (on social media, if not in real life). The answer is complicated and filled with uncertainty: uncertainty about this spring’s flowers, and uncertainty about how species will react to an abruptly changing climate.

Thanks to generations of naturalists (Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold are oft-cited examples), we have centuries of phenological records. Phenology is the study of seasonal and climate-related plant and animal cycles, and you’ll likely hear a lot more about it this spring and in future springs.

This morning I checked the progress of one of our earliest native spring flowers. Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia) is a rare and historically treasured plant. While every species has a fantastic story, Oconee Bells also has a human story.

It is a very beautiful plant, which helps its reputation. Oconee Bells was the subject of a 19th Century botanical treasure hunt; first documented by Andre Michaux in 1788, it was not recorded again until 1877. It is considered a botanical relict; there are just a few members of the genus, and they live in Japan, China, and North America. Clearly it was once wide ranging, but the North American species is now found in just a handful of small populations, mostly along the wet and temperate Blue Ridge Escarpment.

We are fortunate enough to have a small patch in our neighborhood (elevation 2700’), planted along a creek by a passionate amateur botanist who purchased them at a local nursery. This morning, the Oconee Bell’s leaves were out (as they are, Galax-style, year-round), but its flower buds were tightly closed and held close to the ground. In 2012, another remarkably early spring, they bloomed on March 16; in 2016 they first opened April 4. At the Asheville Botanical Garden (at 2000’ elevation, the garden is phenologically-speaking at least a week ahead of us), there are Oconee Bell buds that will open this week.

Shortia galacifolia (named by Asa Gray after the botanist

Charles Wilkins Short and the plant with similar leaves, Galax)

Phenology is where ecology, climate, and history all converge. It is also where amateur naturalists and citizen scientists can make lasting contributions to science. It is on the minds of all naturalists during this record-breakingly warm winter. Indeed, two of my favorite nature blogs have recently featured posts on phenology, DG Haskell and Matt Candeias' In Defense of Plants.

In Matt's post, he writes: "It is hard to make predictions on exactly how ecosystems are going to respond but what we can say is that things are already changing and they are doing so more rapidly than they have in a very long time." As a changing climate skews our seasons, many species and communities will be challenged to adapt. Much depends on the suddenness and degree of change, but clearly some things will make it and others won't. I have little long-term hope for the Southern Appalachian Spruce-Fir Forest, a high elevation ice age relic; this forest will likely migrate into heaven. But many of our mid-elevation mountain plants may survive.

Some species schedule their emergence based on temperature and moisture, while others are more attuned to seasonal changes in daylight. For most, it is a combination. Some flowers will get frozen in March or April, but others will successfully fruit and send early-blooming genes on to the next generation. Perhaps the early emergence of the Oconee Bells is a harbinger of hope, an indication of rapid adaptation. We do know that it is tenacious plant; once feared extinct, it continues to hang on, creekbank by creekbank.

Keep an eye on this blog for a photo of the Oconee Bells when it blooms (I'm guessing towards the end of the first week of March).

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