February is fooling the flowers

Warren Wolfe

Star Tribune

Published Feb 19, 2002

The Twin Cities' unusually warm weather is tricking tulips, crab apples, maples and other plants into thinking that the April-like weather actually is spring.

"It's not just early. It's outrageously early," said horticulturalist Deb Brown at the University of Minnesota. "The snowdrops are blooming and tulips are pushing up.

Shirtsleeves and shorts are the uniform of the day.

Richard Sennott

Star Tribune

"It's too early to tell, but I wouldn't be surprised to see some winter injury to plants because it's so dry," she said.

The Twin Cities tied a warm-weather record Monday -- the highest low temperature for the date, when the air cooled to just 36 degrees shortly before dawn. Monday's high of 49 degrees was 20 degrees above normal, but far below the record of 58 set in 1981.

"This is not your normal winter," said Mike Hibbard, horticultural adviser at Bachman's garden centers, fielding calls from scores of concerned gardeners. "It's not usual that I'm praying for a half-inch of rain for my plants in the middle of February."

So are firefighters in central Minnesota, who declared the start of wildfire season last week when they battled scattered blazes across hundreds of acres of brush and woods. But only scattered precipitation is expected north of the Twin Cities today, while one-quarter to one-half inch of moisture is forecast for the southern third of the state.

That rain, mixed with snow, will help both the plant and fire situations in the south.

"We'll get something -- some rain and probably less than an inch of snow in the metro area," said forecaster Rich Naistad at the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen. "And we'll be cooler, but temperatures still will be above normal."

Most plants OK

For people concerned about plants, the news is mostly good, experts said Monday.

"If your crocuses or tulips are peeking up a half inch or so, I wouldn't be concerned," Hibbard said. "If we get real cold weather and still no snow, the tips might get damaged, but probably not.

"But if they're farther along, 5 or 6 inches at this point in the winter, temperatures dropping down to the low teens or colder could be a pretty big problem," he said. "The same with the perennials. But I'm more concerned about lack of moisture, because bulbs form roots when the soil temperature is between 32 and 55 degrees, and that takes moisture."

Similarly, people need not be concerned about budding or flowering trees, said experts at garden stores and the university.

"We've already had a few silver maples blooming on campus," said Jeff Gillman, the school's nursery-management specialist. "My guess is the crab apples are going to bloom early, and we won't get quite as good a crop because of that.

"But most trees, if they bud early and then lose the buds to frost, have secondary buds that come out," he said. "You'll get leaves, and the tree will be fine."

Bleak for skiers

In this winter that won't quite settle in, the snow has come and gone several times, leaving conditions bleak for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.

And warm weather has made lake ice unsafe for cars and trucks much of the winter, and dangerous recently for snowmobiles and ice houses. Officials spent much of last weekend helping anglers remove ice houses from metro-area lakes. By law, they should be off lakes by midnight Feb. 28 in southern Minnesota.

November through January racked up the warmest average temperature since weather record-keeping started 180 years ago. November temperatures exceeded normal by a record 13.2 degrees, December by 9.8 degrees and January by 11.5 degrees.

But meteorologically, "winter" is defined as December, January and February, assistant state climatologist Greg Spoden noted.

"In order for 2001-2002 to be the warmest meteorological winter, the average [Twin Cities] temperature for February 2002 will have to be one of the top five all-time warmest Februaries, greater than 28.6 degrees," he said.

So far, we're on track. As of Sunday, the month's average temperature was 28.8 degrees.

-- Warren Wolfe is at wolfe@startribune.com .