Cold Weather and Plants

Will this spring blooming season differ from last year since winter temperatures are dramatically colder?

by Peter Gordon, Director of Education, Elachee Nature Science Center

Weather-wise, 2018 has come on like an angry polar bear. As you would expect, plants are just chillin’ under the Earth’s surface.

It may feel particularly brutal this year because the winter of 2017 was one of the mildest on record. In fact, since it was so mild, certain plant species did not receive the required amount of cold days needed to break out of their dormancy at a predictable time or to even flower at all last spring. Pink Lady Slippers, photo courtesy of Joe Bill Berry

Here’s a recent example. For more than two decades, the Elachee Nature Science Center staff has enjoyed the return of the Pink Lady Slippers. Close to Elachee’s Visitor Center is an accessible patch of these beautiful native orchids we monitor daily in late April and early May. Last spring, not one of these special plants even broke the surface of the ground. Was the lack of chilling time the reason?

What Scouting for Wildflowers Tells Us

Elachee is again offering a spring Georgia Master Naturalist series for life-long learners. A highlight of this lifelong learning program is an annual weekend visit to the northeast Georgia mountains where the class conducts a broad survey of mountain ecology and geology. This session is historically in late April or early May when weather is a little warmer. However, one trade-off is that many of the region’s wildflowers, especially the early to rise spring ephemerals like Trillium, are already past peak bloom and on their way to setting seed.

Southern Nodding Trillium photo courtesy of Joe Bill BerryThat said, our 2017 mountain trip was a wonderful exception. When we entered Till Ridge Cove last May, the Trillium and most other wildflowers were in peak bloom. The hillsides were covered with resplendent flowers of varying sizes and colors.

When I asked our guide, noted botanist Steve Bowling, why we were seeing these flowers in bloom so late in the season, he explained that the flowers had not received the necessary number of cold days to free them from their dormant state. It wasn’t until after the March 2017 cold snap, the one that threatened Georgia’s blueberry crop, did Trillium meet their threshold.  

Based on the cold temperatures we have experienced so far, in 2018 we should be seeing a return to normal for these and other spring wildflowers in the Chicopee Woods and north Georgia.

More about Elachee’s Georgia Master Naturalist Series

Explore local habitats and ecosystems in this interactive 11-session course taking place from March 29 through May 31, 2018, that combines indoor lectures with outdoor field experiences. Elachee tailors its Georgia Master Naturalist course for the local environment, within the framework developed by The University of Georgia (UGA) Cooperative Extension Service and the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. Course participants receive a certificate of completion.