After a brutally dry summer followed by cooler temperatures and a touch of rain, some of Kansas City’s flowering plants might be under the impression that it’s already spring.
Indeed, magnolia trees have bloomed over the last few weeks along with crab apple and pear trees and lilacs that were starting to blossom a good seven or eight months before they typically do.
“It’s a response to the summer that we’ve had,” said Laura Dickinson, a master gardener coordinator and horticultural assistant at Johnson County Extension. “When it was really hot and dry, the trees went dormant. When it rained and got cooler, they thought it was spring.”
It’s fairly common to see certain types of plants — crab apple and pear trees, for example — flowering in the fall. The buds are triggered by a sudden cold snap or moisture, as is the case this year after summer months without much rainfall. Lilacs, azaleas and forsythias are among other species that might give a sneak preview of their colors in the fall when the weather is just so.
“It’s common in the fall to have reflowering of spring blooming in response to coolness,” Dickinson said. “It’s usually a light bloom, and there will still be buds left to bloom next spring as usual.”
But the extent to which the magnolias are flowering right now isn’t normal, Dickinson said. Fall flowering is more common with crab apple and pear trees, but even they are blooming a bit early this season.
Tony Mistretta, owner of Bannister Garden Center in southeast Kansas City, said he has been hearing about magnolia trees that have flowered two or three times already this fall. His neighbor’s magnolia is nearly in full bloom.
“It’s just beautiful,” he said, “but it looks a little out of sorts.”
In his 40 years of experience, Mistretta said the extent to which plants are flowering early is “beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
Alison Mairet, who has gardened for 12 years, said she thought her magnolia tree was dead — until it put out a few sporadic, fat blooms. She also has some azalea and rhododendron plants that are “spitting some flowers” despite spider mite damage and the fact that those plants also are supposed to wait for spring.
“It’s been so hot,” Mairet said. “(The magnolia tree) doesn’t like it over 100 degrees. It seems to have come out of a little bit of dormancy.”
She has seen these early bloomers in her 11-year-old garden before, though, and she said her plants still bloom again in the spring. And despite this summer’s drought, what Mairet is seeing this year is similar to what she’s seen in the past. Yet the flowers blooming right now in her garden are ones that typically flower earlier in the spring — around March and April — rather than later.
Though trees and shrubs blooming now will probably still flower in the spring, there may not be as many buds, Dickinson said. Once a bud has opened, fooled into thinking it’s spring, it won’t flower again when spring actually rolls around.
The best thing gardeners can do for early blooming trees and shrubs is to keep watering the plants. That gives an extra boost while they deal with the stress of changing weather. Some gardeners might not have watered these plants enough during the summer months, Mistretta said, something that would have exacerbated that stress.
If there isn’t a lot of snow this winter, watering plants once a month when temperatures are above freezing will help make sure the surviving buds will be healthy enough to bloom in the spring, Dickinson said.
But if they bloom now, they bloom, she said.
“(Gardeners) can’t do anything to make it stop,” Dickinson said. “You can go out, you can yell at them, you can tell them it’s winter, but they don’t listen very well.”
That’s something Mairet knows well.
“I’m just going to let them be,” she said of her plants. “Leave them alone, well watered.”