Virginia’s Fake Spring Spells Trouble For Confused Trees

March 1, 2023 · 5 minute read
Virginia’s Fake Spring Spells Trouble For Confused Trees

February has always been my least favorite month for a myriad of reasons.  None more than the oppressive grey skies that seem to never relent and the damp cold that permeates even the heaviest jackets.  Making you want nothing more than to stay inside, eat junk food, and dream about the spring that seems like it will never come.  February 2023 in Richmond was not the usual February, and I feel like I have been transported to Atlanta or the likes.  I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and in my youth, winter was winter. But upon moving to Central Virginia in 2008, I realized that winter can be a chameleon in the Old Dominion.  There are always the jokes about 2 to 3 false Springs before it is genuinely Spring, and this year appears to be no different – except that it really is.

My first years in Virginia had me scratching my head over days in the 60s and 70s in the middle of January and February, as I told myself that this would somehow drastically damage the trees and shrubs.  I was convinced that even a small amount of warming in the winter could damage trees and their buds but really, it was the deep freezes that did the most damage.  Plants have adapted with a little insurance in the genetics, and most don’t start breaking bud the instant it gets warm.  They are cautious so they don’t waste energy or reproductive organs, i.e. flowers, to a late freeze, so it takes extended periods of warm weather to literally and figuratively get the juices flowing.  Even with some longer warm spells of one or two weeks in late winter, plants are still adapted to hold on before beginning growth.  It genuinely seems like this has all gone wrong this year.

While I have loved the warm weather and blossoming flowers, it has all felt wrong to me.  I know that we still have March to go through and I also know that Mother Nature is a fickle parent.  Watching Bradford Pears, Crabapples, Weeping Willows, and Red Maples push out and begin putting on leaves and flowers did not alarm me. It is frequent that these quick-to-start trees are often met with a late cold snap that burns back young leaves and flowers.  However, as I am now watching Sawtooth and Willow Oaks starting to break bud, I am becoming more and more concerned.  My concern was met with a harsh dose of reality when I saw the prediction that NOAA has for the last three weeks of March:

Twitter weather excerpt

Twitter weather excerpt

which is showing a 60%-70% probability of below average temperatures in that time period.  This means that with one to two more weeks of warm spring weather, plants will develop further and will then likely have the temperatures drop again.  While this is not deadly, it can cause many issues that we have not seen for quite some time.

Last year in late January I wrote a Tree Advice column

on winter damage, following a somewhat damaging ice storm, discussing how to help plants before and after hard freezes. Please take a look at it to develop plans if you are looking to protect plants this spring.  Many are immediately concerned about the delicate ornamental Japanese Maple that may have newly emerging leaves damaged, or the Saucer Magnolia that has blooms frozen off, but I am looking higher.  My larger concern is what this is going to happen to the larger and more mature trees that are already stressed by the wild weather swings we have been having the past several years.  A hard freeze is not likely to kill them, but if buds have already broken, damage is possible.  If only flower buds are out, then there is likely little loss unless you are a fruit producer.  Once leaves are out, more damage occurs.

Spring always starts earlier than we think, as plants begin coming out of dormancy and move fluids through their vascular systems without putting on any outward growth.  This is why Maples are tapped in the late winter when nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures go above freezing.  The trees are moving fluids, even in freezing temperatures, so why worry?  When plants begin to break bud and open flower and/or leaves, they have been very metabolically active for some time, and a lot of growth is already occurring under the bark at the cambium.  If a hard freeze hits after plants have fully begun growth, it not only damages new tissue but it can also cause bark rupturing, called “frost cracking.”  This opens large cracks in the bark that can dry out and kill cambium as well as open the tree to attack by insects and fungi.

Looking further up the plant – if leaves have already begun to emerge, then a hard freeze occurs before the tissue is able to harden off, the leaves will be lost.  While this is not devastating to the tree, it can cause a lot of undue stress.  Plants develop buds that open in the Spring the previous year.  This means that the plant has access to leaves and food while they are developing the buds for the coming year, costing the plant very little in loss of stored energy.  If the plant now has injury to its newly-expanding tissue from freeze damage, the plant has to put out another flush of buds using only stored energy, because no leaves are present to make food.  This loss of energy can be catastrophic to large, already-stressed plants, as they are likely to have the lowest carbohydrates in reserve and the most work to put on new tissue.

I hope that the meteorologists are wrong on this one, but it really does seem almost too good to be true that Spring is already here.  I want to play in my garden more than anyone, yet I am more concerned now with how to protect all of my Peonies, tender perennials, Gardenias, and Japanese Maples if the cold does make a comeback.  Keep an eye on the weather long-term. If it looks like temperatures will be dropping below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, invest in some tarps to cover your prized and fragile plants.  When it comes to our larger trees, all we can do is hold out hope that bud break does not come before the last of the cold weather.