Debbie Arrington

Debbie Arrington: Early spring has gardeners guessing

Sunday’s storm dampened this star magnolia, one of many spring bloomers that arrived early in Sacramento.
Sunday’s storm dampened this star magnolia, one of many spring bloomers that arrived early in Sacramento.

OK, we know what day it is; that’s what calendars (and little heart-shaped reminders) are made for.

But Mother Nature? She seems to think it’s already March or maybe April, at least in Sacramento. Along city streets, flowering pear trees look like frilly white clouds, filled with fragrant blooms. All over the Valley, fruit trees have swelled their buds, weeks ahead of their normal orchard schedule.

Harbringers of spring that traditionally pop their heads up around Valentine’s Day, many daffodils are already past their peak. Usually blooming in late March or April, California lilacs are buzzing with bees who also are out extra early.

Meanwhile, some perennials, shrubs and trees are sticking to their biological clocks. They’re patiently waiting for real spring, while the rest of the garden is in mid-March mode.

What’s going on? Blame it on warmer-than-usual winter temperatures.

Ellen Zagory, horticulture director at the UC Davis Arboretum, noticed the strange sequence of pre-spring flowers among the arboretum’s many native plants.

“Look at that Valley Violet ceanothus,” she said while touring the arboretum teaching nursery’s demonstration gardens. “It usually blooms in March. It’s just full of flowers – and bees. It’s right next to the (Western) redbud and the redbud always blooms first. But this year, the redbud is still bare while the ceanothus is going crazy.”

Growing in the same flower bed, both plants have the same sunny exposure. Why aren’t both ahead of schedule?

“Some things are more temperature-sensitive than others,” Zagory explained. “(The bloom cycle of) others are tied to day length. The redbud is just waiting for longer days.”

Hours of sunlight, and not necessarily its warmth, trigger bloom cycles in that latter group, including the reluctant redbud.

Mary West of Loomis’ High Hand Nursery started spotting early bloomers in late January even in the foothills.

“Have you noticed the trees blooming along the highway?” West said. “Fruit trees in hilly areas where they get day-long sun exposure seem to think it’s spring already.

“This explosion of blossoms is happening in the Sacramento area and east up into the foothills,” she added. “It’s Mother Nature’s way of signaling spring is here, earlier than normal.”

High Hand’s Bob Coates predicts that “we are three to four weeks ahead of schedule for spring,” West added. “The biggest threat, once the blossoms have opened, is a drop in temperature that can freeze and kill the blossoms or heavy rain that can pull the blossoms from the trees, reducing crop yields. For those with allergies, more blossoms means the bees are hard at work and pollen is on the move.”

Last weekend’s rain did wipe out many ultra-early fruit tree blossoms. After a January with no rain, the storms brought much-needed water to drought-parched California. (With more than 2 inches last weekend, our Sacramento rain totals are almost back to normal.)

But once the fruit trees start blooming, there’s no way to put on the brakes. Just hope the bees find the flowers and frost doesn’t make a late-season comeback. Historically, Sacramento’s frost season ends March 23.

Reader Laura Chan saw her daffodils come up in mid-January and doesn’t want this to become a habit. “What can I do to prevent this from happening next year?” she asked.

Dig up the bulbs in late spring and replant later in fall. That resets their inner “clocks” and forces them to bloom later. That may work for daffodils and other bulbs. But for fruit trees and other March bloomers, there’s really no practical way to prevent an early spring. Like all weather-related events, we gardeners have to learn to cope – and enjoy these blooms while they’re in flower. Pick a bouquet for your Valentine and celebrate this early spring gift.

As we all know, we really can’t fool Mother Nature, just ourselves.

‘Strange Inheritance’

Sacramento antiques expert Brian Witherell already has a national reputation, thanks to his regular gigs on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” Witherell will be featured on a new show devoted to sometimes weird and rare finds, “Strange Inheritance.”

At 9:30 p.m., March 2, on the FOX Business Network, Witherell will share the tale of a Carmel woman who inherited a large gun collection. Witherell’s auction house handled the sale of the collection in 2011.

“Her father, Lt. Col. Arthur Crego, started collecting guns at the age of 16 and continued until his death,” he said.

Crego’s collection reached nearly 700 guns and related items from the American Revolutionary War to the Korean War, Witherell added. Most were from the Civil War.

The collection sold for more than $400,000, topped by an extremely rare Bilharz, Hall and Co. rising breech carbine rifle from the Confederate Army. It sold for $40,000.

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington. Read her Seeds columns at