Let Winter Be Winter

There’s a compact Korean Spice Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) just outside our front door. I give it a close inspection, if I’m not in a hurry, almost every time I enter or exit the house.

Korean Spice Viburnum blooming in January.

This plant’s flower clusters form during the autumn, then bloom in spring. So this past fall, I was happy to see that the coming year was set to bring a decent handful of blooms. In prior years the number of flower clusters has ranged from 0 to 1, not including the one that was eaten by a malicious bird.

But my happiness was soon replaced by anxiety. That’s because the mild winter weather is causing the flower clusters to come out of dormancy and bloom – slowly, one tiny flower at a time. The picture above illustrates the point.

We’ve all seen plants lured into bloom by early spring weather that precedes a flower-shriveling deep freeze. It can be heartbreaking, but it happens.

I don’t think I can recall flowers enticed into blooming by mild weather in December and January. It would be awful to go without these blooms and their wonderful fragrance in May because they were wasted in January. (Funny thing, there is no hint of fragrance on the flowers that have opened.)

A mild winter is nice as far as it goes, but winter should still be properly cold. Not nostril-freezing cold, but overcoat cold. Cold enough not to confuse the plants or the people. And there should be some snow, not enough to strain back muscles with shoveling, but at least a modest blanket of insulating white for most of the season.

Anyway, that’s what I’m hoping for: weather that will tell my Korean Spice Viburnum to forget any crazy ideas.

Complaining about the weather is an activity as old as humanity, though I’m sure it got a lot more popular once we started cultivating plants. (I used to visit North Dakota for a prior job, and there I learned the following joke: Q: What do you call a basement full of farmers? A: A whine cellar.) And there have always been variations, sometimes extreme, among the seasons.

But with the specter of climate change, things are different. As the years pass, what we call normal weather has become increasingly rare. And this undermines the comfort I derive from the annual progression of flowers and fruits, butterflies and birds.

However, the future is not yet written (an outbreak of sanity is still possible).  We do possess some power over events, most notably the power to elect political leadership that acknowledges climate change as a reality that must be confronted.

48 Comments on “Let Winter Be Winter

  1. We are having a lot of trouble convincing politicians in Australia about climate change, it leaves me speechless…but there is an election coming up for us soon, so we will keep on trying!

  2. Oh my goodness. No blooms here, but I’m afraid to see what the Hellebores are doing under the leaf mulch. I know the Daffodils are poking out of the ground…I need to heap on more mulch. I hope your Viburnum blooms will pause enough to make a big splash in April or May.

  3. Early bloom used to be devastating for the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley. It did not happen often, but when it did, it could ruin entire crops, which is why most farmers grew a few different cultivars. Those who grew apricots likely grew both ‘Moorpark’ and ‘Blenhiem’. Those who grew prunes likely grew both ‘French’ and ‘Italian’. Many grew different kinds of fruits, like apricots and prunes.

      • In Nevada, where date orchards were displaced by the urban sprawl of Las Vegas, the female palms were recycled into landscapes, but deprived of their male pollinators so that they could not make fruit that would be too messy in landscapes. In that situation, fruit is no longer desirable. (but you know that some stupid ‘landscaper’ will add male trees into the mix.)

  4. Climate change is with us, no matter what some people think. A few hundred years ago the river Thames froze and people rode their horses over it, hard to imagine these days! I find a lot more flowering in the garden in January now than when I first moved here 30 yrs ago. Yes we still have the odd few days when the flowers get blasted with frost, but not as many as we used to.

    • Viburnum carlesii is the one usually called Korean spice viburnum; the flowers have one of my favorite garden scents, and it carries on the air in warm spring weather.

      A viburnum that it wouldn’t be alarming to see in bloom at this point in a warmish Chicago winter (or March in a “normal” winter) is V. farreri. It’s fragrant, too, but the scent is more plain sweet, without the clove notes that make Korean spice Viburnum so intoxicating.

      • Yes, I know Viburnum carlesii, it’s lovely. I am sometimes baffled by American common names for plants but if I had paid attention I would have seen that Jason wrote the Latin name too. Yes, I love the winter flowering viburnums.

  5. Sadly Jason, I think we have passed the tipping point for the climate. But I mustn’t be too negative. Good government could maybe slow down the process. I haven’t noticed any buds opening on my Viburnum carlesii but it did keep its leaves for much longer, right into December.

  6. There are no blooms here, only deep snow in the garden Jason. Your viburnum is pretty blooming in January.

  7. I didn’t realize that we have native viburnums here in Texas. It seems as though they’re more north and east of me; I’ll have to explore a bit and put them on my list of plants to look for this spring. As for that early bloom, every now and again the peach growers here get caught out, as well as people who have a few fruit trees in their yards. For most, it’s a frustration, but for the commercial growers, it can make for a lean year.

    • There are several native Viburnums in this region. The Cranberrybush Viburnum is pretty common at garden centers, but most others you’ll find in gardens (including carlesii) are exotics.

  8. Hear, hear! In Maine, the effects of climate change are all too apparent. Freezing rain, once very rare, is now common in the winter. Hate the stuff. Would much rather have snow. As one acquaintance lamented, “I moved from the mid-Atlantic states to get away from freezing rain.” I guess it followed her. I remain hopeful that we can both adapt and change our ways. Perhaps it’s a silly hope, given the political situation, but I can’t give in to despair.

  9. I may have to do a garden walkaround. I stoped growing forsythia years ago because the buds always got killed by frost

  10. I agree, “normal” weather is becoming increasingly rare. We’ve been out west now 15 years, and watched the patterns change. With all the grapes and fruit trees here, I am not anxious to have blooms come too early.

  11. We’re having a fairly mild winter here as well and some of the summer/fall blooming plants haven’t been cut down by frost yet. Crazy. Hope your viburnum saves some blooms for spring. If a deep freeze is predicted, could you cut a bloom or two to open inside?

  12. I suppose you could reason that your Korean spice viburnum is prompted to bloom by its shelter and warmth from the proximity to your house. However, like nearly everyone else, I worry about climate change.

  13. Another name for the shrub is Mayflower viburnum and mine always blooms in May no matter what the winter is like. If you see more than a blossom or two opening now spring might be less fragrant this year. There’s still plenty of time for some real cold.

  14. I’m simply baffled that anyone living on our earth today would dismiss the reality of climate change. After a strange cold snap in November, it’s been unusually mild around here too. Not so much that plants are waking up prematurely (yet) but enough that many of us are still waiting for “true” winter to arrive.

  15. I hope we get your picture perfect description of winter thrust upon us sometime soon. I don’t want spring to feel like winter this year. I hope your viburnum blooms survive the vicissitudes of winter.

  16. My Korean spice viburnum is one of my favorites. I love its fragrance! So far it is still dormant. Here in my part of Alabama we can expect anything in winter. We have always had great swings between warm spring-like days to bitter subfreezing, frostbite on your nose weather. Poor plants never know what to expect, and blooms get zapped every year. The common joke here is if you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. I dream of a “normal” winter – but keep it short!

  17. Two years ago, NH lost their entire peach crop due to early buds and hard frost. Here in SC, there are gorgeous Camellias amongst many other flowers blooming, and it dropped into the low 20’s last night. Ghastly for gardeners.

    • It seems every other year the strawberry crop in Michigan is ruined. So sad! When the crop is good and the weather is cooperative there’s nothing better than driving to the country to pick your own fresh strawberries.

  18. Hello Jason, the boundaries between the seasons feels like it is becoming blurred, mild winters, cold spring, wet summer and on and on. It does confuse plants and wildlife and fools them into doing things earlier or later than they should.

  19. There is no doubt that the seasons have changed worldwide, our winters are mild lately and spring is usually far colder than winter. All our bulbs are almost up, a cold spell will finish them off. It is all very worrying. Hope your blooms hold on.xxx

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