Saturday, April 20, 2013

Winners and losers

Echinocereus reichenbachii (dwarf form)
 In this never ending winter (which is quickly racking up the longest list of damaged and dead plants I've tallied in years), there are some clear winners and some painful losers. It is probably premature (not to mention somewhat tempting the fates) to be too sanguine about the former....but I think I can say that native plants in general, and cacti in particular do not seem to have shown the slightest problem with our arctic blast of early April (7 degrees on April 8 with very little snow cover): Many, many Eurasian plants (Iris, Narcissus, Paeonia, Lilium, Tulipa, Hyacinthus) and almost all flowering trees (Magnolia, Prunus, Cercis, Malus) and shrubs (Forsythia, Syringa, Viburnum, Ribes) that would normally make this time of year wonderfully festive are fried, cooked, zapped, blackened, and possibly damaged beyond just this spring's display. I suspect there are some plants that have been killed outright. Not quite ready to name names--but are Colchicums usually pitch black in April? The leaves I mean?

Echinocereus viridiflorus in trough at DBG
 So as I stroll around my garden and see sprawling mounds of cacti (some of which come from very warm temperate regions, looking simply peachy--with Pediocactus blooming already, and all the others starting to get a hint of summer life--but not one of them show the slightest stress or necrosis. Maybe I should hold my horses--who knows some may have sustained damage. But they sure don't show a trace of it thus far. I think that cacti must maintain quite a bit of antifreeze (in the form of sugar) in their stems in winter--and don't really rouse into growth until well into late spring--so late frosts are not apt to take the toll with them one might have expected...

Rosularia sempervivum ex Eggli
 I suppose for "truth in advertising" I should show you current photos of these plants: but I'm so starved for color I've dipped into the archives to show them blooming--which I expect they will do in a few weeks: but I have to put in a big plug for north Temperate succulents: just like their American cousins, the Crassulaceae of the North Temperate zone seem unfazed by late frosts: Sempervivum, Sedum, Rosularia all are plump and happy. I wish I could say the same for Dudleya (they don't look so good) and I have never had so much damage on tender South Africans--at least not in a decade. But the Holarctic succulents don't seem to mind late frosts at all: they are all looking perky.

Stipa ucrainica
And grasses--they all look completely cheerful in the cold. The Kentucky bluegrass around town is bright green already, and almost all grasses are showing a bit of a sign of early growth--cold notwithstanding. It's no accident that our dominant vegetation on the Great Plains is grass.

I am not sure the average gardener has measured the extent of damage we have sustained this winter: people are so oblivious of their surroundings. But the real gardeners I talk to have a strange look in their eyes--real anguish and suffering. We feel enormous empathy for our plants. This spring will be one that goes into the log books, the annals, the history books as the Wasteland spring--the spring the bulbs were blasted and the flowering trees and shrubs were silenced. For those who are not experiencing the eerie emptiness of a record-breaking cold April--I can just say enjoy! And may you never have one like this. Ever.

Thank Heavens for alpine plants (which laugh at cold) and natives and especially for the prickly, nasty, spiny and ironclad clan of cacti! Without them I can't imagine how much worse I would feel!

I have to end on a positive note: our blasted sun is so cheerful: you drive around Denver and the lawns are glistening green, the clouds are puffy white, the sky is azure blue most days between our wintry blasts and you peer at the shimmering white Rockies to the West and think--wow! What a gorgeous place! (Not noticing the banks of frost singed bulbs tucked away here and there with their flowers burnt off or nodding pitifully and that half the trees around you have blackened flower buds)...I can't say I envy the average bloke who doesn't notice and goes on perfectly content with their day...but I do look back at the string of seven magnificent springs we just had with more than a little twinge of nostalgia!


  1. I share your anguish. Of course I am a gardener and just crept out before dawn to see if we had a frost last night. I think we were lucky. This has happened so many times this winter I am sick of it. I was staggered to see your lace cactus in bloom already. Then I read that they were from last year. The frost would surely have destroyed their blooms. Mine flowered last week and were lucky but one flowered early and was hit by hail. Every year is a different year, don't you think?

  2. The lace cactus is from several years ago: our's won't be blooming outdoors until late May...Sorry for misrepresenting! I could have shown the lovely columns, but needed to see some flowers!

  3. We've been lucky in Utah. Nothing so devastating has hit us...yet. I was planning on a visit to DBG this year, so this is too bad. It sounds like the Alpine Garden will be in good shape, so there's that. Maybe it would be the best time to visit, actually, to take inventory of the winners in these times of crazy climate change.

  4. Maybe I have been too dramatic, Susan: our spring display has been dampened for sure (if extinguished!). I suspect in a month things will have altered dramatically. I've noticed that bulbs are still sending up stems (although the tips of their leaves are badly burned) so in a few weeks we should still have a late spring bulb show. But by the end of May I suspect warm weather will quickly mask the spring's devastation and by June we won't even know we'd had such tough luck. June is really peak season for many plants here, and we've always had a stunning summer and fall display--which I don't think will be impacted at all by the spring shenanigans. We did not used to have so many bulbs and early spring perennials--so this cold snap hurt all the more in that it frustrated a great new initiative here. But all will pass in our wild steppe climate! Maybe we'll get another string of Maritime springs again one day: I will appreciate them all the more!

  5. Panayoti, The gardener is often called upon to do more than planting and weeding. Have you considered taking steps to protect your early Spring growing plants? I move potted temperate orchids inside each night it is below ~40 F. I also have been covering early germinating seedlings with cardboard or a tarp to protect them from frost. For larger areas you could place some hoops and poly to protect delicate Spring bulbs and Peonies. It would be worth the effort to get certain plants through the rare single digit Spring cold snap.


  6. The disastrous cold snap of April 8 was NOT predicted (what was predicted was 6-12" of snow and not nearly as cold of conditions. Had I known the temperatures would be so cold, you bet I would have blanketed my half acre! And there would have been far less damage, I can assure you: I have two friends who DID protect things (fearing the heavy snow--they covered peonies and daffodils among other things). Even pots with holes in them protected the plants underneath COMPLETELY--and the same plants next door were fried for them too: I don't think people realize how close to the edge of disaster we live on this thin skim of crust on a vulnerable planet we are so busy destroying. One cannot go through life anticipating disaster, alas, and if these disasters come frequently--then what does one do? More snow this week and cold.


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