February 5, 2024

Plants that Signal an Early Spring in Ohio - Living Alarm Bells

            While seasons come and go the exact when of their coming and going is always an unpredictable and complex question. Predicting these events is important for people who work in natural seasonal cycles with plants and animals such as farmers, hunters, gardeners, bonsai artists, bird watchers, and other sorts of nature enthusiasts. Many people don't know this but within us all there are internal biological clock proteins - this is where circadian rhythm comes from. So this may be one way that critters and plants can tell the progression of time. However, an event like triggering a migration or waking up from hibernation is critical to get at the right time. Migrating too late or waking up from hibernation too early could mean death by cold and lack of food. Migrating too early could mean missing the window with the rest of your species to mate or not maximizing your own energy reserves before migrating. All things in nature are a matter of risk, reward, and natural selection. As these are such critical events for the survival of an individual plant or critter, they use multiple cues to detect when to get moving. One cue can be their internal clock as we discussed. Another could be the temperature. Another could be the day length. This combination of cues is how plants and animals can time their seasonal events according to seasonal variation. Thus, while humans are trying to predict how winter in February 2024 will progress using historical data, the farmer's almanac, and a groundhog's shadow, the plants around us already have a good idea of what is the likely scenario regarding our winter. Once you look around enough to know which plants are the first responders to spring, then you also can get warning signs to get your gardening and bonsai preparations into high gear. In this post, I will share some example species which are plant alarm bells, especially in Ohio, but some ornamentals or invasives we have here also are available and could act similarly across the temperate world.

Blog/Central Ohio Bonsai Announcements:

  1. For people in Central Ohio, I will be teaching a beginner indoor bonsai workshop on Saturday 2/24 at Nocterra Brewing. Full details can be found on Eventbrite! Briefly, we will cover all the basics of caring for indoor bonsai, and basic techniques for bonsai maintenance such as how to prune, wire, and repot to create the miniature tree look. All workshop participants will be gifted 1-year memberships to the Columbus Bonsai Society and the Central Ohio Cactus and Succulent Society - A $55 value!  The total price for the workshop is $56 and also includes prebonsai trees and locally made pots for you to take home after our work and a drink from our gracious host.
  2. I now sell pots! I received a special shipment to sell on behalf of Blue Nose Trading. See the pieces of her work I have available here or schedule an appointment to visit my nursery in Columbus, OH via the contact form here. These are mainly for local pickup/delivery only.
  3. The Bonsai Time Podcast has moved! While I am still heavily involved in producing that podcast, the show notes for it now lives on its own websiteits own YouTube channel, and it now has its own TikTok account.
Silver maple flower buds. In fall-mid winter those ball-shaped buds are not visible. Now they are about to release their pollen in the next few weeks.

            One sign of an early spring in Columbus... silver maple flowers about to burst (pictured above). Like the native red maple, these come before their leaves emerge. Nature has many great plants that act as alarm bells for changing seasons. They're even more accurate than the groundhog!

            Other early-rising plants are snowdrop flowers, forsythia petals, magnolia blooms, invasive Callery pear blossoms, and invasive honeysuckle leaves (pictured below). On this same walk, I found snowdrops just starting to come up, too. Some of these alarm bell plants can be found across the US/temperate world. But there may be others more common in your area.

Pay attention to the next few weeks and tell me, what plants do you notice in your area are the first alarm bells? I would love to hear from different regions and maybe make an infographic map!

Snowdrops. They are a delight to see in early spring! If you plant a few in your garden they multiple by seed as well as bulbs easily.

Forsythia flowers up close. They are much smaller in real life. It will look like a very yellow plant while all the others are naked! Image source.

Magnolia flowers are very showy and easily noticed at a distance. They are also one of the first you will see in spring! Image source.

Invasive Callery pear. They line the highways here in Ohio and can be seen with their white blooms covering them in early spring before many other plants are awake. Unfortunately for native plants and animals, the many white flowers also lead to many seeds that propagate them. Image source.

Invasive honeysuckle leaves just starting to emerge. I previously talked about this genus' use in bonsai here, and how to identify this species and pick candidates for yamadori / wild bonsai here. Removing the roots is the only way to permanently remove them from the environment, so using them for bonsai is a win-win for us and nature! Image source.

            Now the only question is how quickly spring will come, or will a winter storm put us on pause a while longer? People always joke about false spring here, and we must be going deep into it as this week it will get to 60°F. This spring arrival, though, would be ~2 months earlier than average for the last 3 years I was here. Meanwhile, February is historically the snowiest month of the year in Columbus. Although it is one small data point, wherever you look, you can see a changing climate.

While typically we get the most snow in February, this week the temperatures will be up to 50-60 degrees. That puts us into mid-February. Likely we will have another cold front come at some point, but if it is too delayed then it won't stop the march to spring and repotting season! Also unusual this year, we had very little cold weather/snow in December here in Columbus. I even took my dog on a hike on New Year's Day here and we still found living ticks which usually are killed off by then! So we had a late arrival of winter and it seems like an early release so far. Data sourced here.

            All that said, for all the local gardeners and bonsai people, let this be your warning - spring will be here before you know it! Best get to preparing! Contact me for info on the new offerings at my bonsai nursery in Columbus, OH in the world of Blue Nose Trading pots, my own custom bonsai soil mix (coming very soon), and of course seeds.

P.S. If you have been procrastinating in seeds like me, you better start with the cold, moist stratification! There is still time 😉. Even if winter starts early, sowing seeds by June-July in my area could give them enough time to sprout, produce and store sugars, and harden off to survive their first winter (although July may be pushing it a bit, I have had success with species up to that sowing time for some species). The species that have long cold stratifications (0, 30, 60, 90, or 120 days are most common) are the ones you have to plan ahead with more. For all the new seed-growers out there, check out my free lecture on the multi-year process of growing bonsai from seed.

One of the Blue Nose Trading pots I have available for sale.

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