Some years back — I don’t remember how many — my part of the piedmont of North Carolina had an early very warm spring — very much like the one we experienced this year. In response to the 80+ degree F temperatures, all the trees leafed out early. Those that bloom before they leaf out flowered ahead of their normal timetable. All the spring bulbs and wildflowers bloomed simultaneously, instead of offering the usual succession of color spread over several weeks — very much like what has happened this spring.
That spring some years back, all that leafy enthusiasm was blackened overnight by a late freeze. As I’ve mentioned, I live in a cold spot, so when lows are predicted to be 30, I’m likely to see 25. That black spring killed every new leaf and flower on my 80-foot canopy trees. The week after the freeze, the ground was littered by tiny blackened tulip poplar, sweet gum, and oak leaves. The trees returned to winter’s barrenness.
For a while, I was afraid the trees were dead. However, after two more months, the canopy trees managed to push out a second flush of leaf growth — not as lush as the first — but enough to finally offer shade to the forest floor.
It was June before that happened. Normally, the canopy is fully emerged by mid-April. It was a long, hot, painful late spring/early summer until I finally had the forest shade I rely on to cool my home, shelter birds, and feed wildlife.
Fast-forward to this precocious spring. My spring-blooming ornamental magnolias are nearly done — thank goodness. But the native trees that bloom — redbuds, dogwoods, silverbells, serviceberries, buckeyes, and more are all either blooming or about to bloom — ahead of schedule by a week or more. Likewise, my Rhododendron canescens (Piedmont Azalea), a native deciduous azalea, is just opening its buds — and it’s packed with flower buds this year, promising to be a showstopper in the landscape.
The blueberry bushes are blooming or about to start. The spring vegetables are just starting to put on some size and become productive. And now the meteorologists are predicting a freeze for tonight.
I can cover the vegetables and the azalea. I can’t protect my 20-35-foot blooming understory trees. And I certainly can’t do anything but wring my hands over tender tulip poplar leaves or abundant oak catkins just beginning to release their pollen.
I fear another black spring is about to obliterate my spring landscape. If I’m lucky, the oak leaves are still safely inside their buds. We won’t get any acorns if the flowers die, which is bad news for wildlife, but perhaps we’ll still at least have leafy shade.
I’m very worried about the trees whose tender new leaves have already emerged. When the last black spring happened some years back, our water levels were normal, meaning the trees had plenty of soil moisture available to help them summon the energy for another surge of leaf growth.
This spring, however, we are in a severe drought. Water tables are frighteningly low. Roots will have much more difficulty finding all the moisture they will need for a second try at leaf development. Drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to insect and disease damage. The potential for a downward spiral from healthy forest to barren landscape is very real.
This morning, I felt sleet pellets hitting my face as I retrieved my morning paper. This afternoon, I will be covering as many tender plants as I can — and praying for enough lingering warmth in the canopy to prevent another black spring.