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‘They get tricked’

Some area plants fooled by warmer winter weather

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Tulip tree

Tulip tree blooming in Anniston on Tuesday.  (Bill Wilson / The Anniston Star)

Wednesday’s high of 71 was 17 degrees above a normal temperature for a January day in Anniston — but not out of character for this winter so far.

The unseasonably warm weather has some local plants and trees confused; they’ve bloomed too early, with spring still a month or two away.

Take, for example, a star magnolia near Top of the River along McClellan Boulevard. One among the naked tree’s many buds burst earlier this week, its white bloom spilling from the case that should protect it until later in the year.

“That’s typical,” Hayes Jackson, regional Alabama Cooperative Extension System agent, said Thursday. “They get tricked into blooming any time we get a warm period.”

While temperatures have returned to a normal level of chilly and will remain that way through the beginning of next week, meteorologists say Alabama’s winter has been warmer than usual. They say this is because of global-scale changes that affect local-level weather patterns.

“Out of El Niño, and into a weak La Niña,” Jason Holmes, a National Weather Service meteorologist, explained Thursday by phone from the service’s Calera office.

Holmes was referring to global oscillations which can influence weather from Tahiti to Anniston.

The large-scale changes mean warmer-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal amounts of precipitation locally, Holmes said, with that prediction applied generally by the service’s Storm Prediction Center to the next three months’ weather.

But a cold front moved in over the region Thursday, Holmes said, bringing with it freezing lows through Tuesday of next week.

Friday’s will be the lowest, the meteorologist said, at 29 degrees.

That might not be good news for the star magnolia on McClellan Boulevard.

With the first good frost, its white flowers will likely turn to brown mush, Jackson said.

Many plants and trees suspend growth during colder winter months, said Safaa Al-Hamdani, Jacksonville State University biology professor and trained botanist.

They save it for the spring, when they need energy to form new buds, flowers, and eventually, fruit.

So if warmer-than-usual weather tricks a dormant plant into waking up, it might waste the precious resource on blooms quickly lost to killing frost, Al-Hamdani said.

“Because of the wasted energy, the plant may not have the energy to grow in the spring,” the professor said. He recommends covering any gullible but beloved new blooms with plastic at night to save them from any frost that might come between now and say, April.

Jackson, who keeps a 7-acre garden, says the magnolias aren’t the only plants who ride the crazy roller coaster that is winter in the Deep South.

Last year, the star magnolias bloomed on Christmas Day. This year he’s seen the color of daffodils and flowering quince, even lenten roses and camellias.

“Our winter,” Jackson says, “is a constant battle between two seasons.”

He’ll let the naive in his own garden get nipped, he said. He worries more about a late frost, striking in March, when real damage might be done.

There is variability inherent in the South’s winters, which are generally mild anyway. But Al-Hamdani and Jimmy Triplett — another JSU biology professor and plant taxonomist — both say the trend in recent years is to even warmer cold days.

“The years, on average, are getting warmer, just with climate change,” Triplett said by phone Wednesday. “There has been this noticeable trend of things flowering sooner than we’d expect.”

If this trend of quickening continues, Triplett said, the big question becomes: “Is it outside something that living things can deal with?”

Chances are good that they can, he thinks, though there could be big shifts in a hardy plant’s long-held range.

Staff writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.