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Please Don't Celebrate An Early Spring!

By: Sandra Nelson


As I was leaving the grocery store last Monday, the cashier merrily called out, “Enjoy this glorious weather!” While I appreciated the heartfelt send off, I have to admit I cringed inside. 72 degrees in February in mid-Missouri isn’t glorious; it’s dangerous, at least by phenological standards. 


Today, phenology is defined as ”the science that measures the timing of life cycle events for plants, animals, and microbes, and detects how the environment influences the timing of those events,” ( Boubakeur Guesmi, Climate as the Major Factor Controlling Phenology )  Phenology data helps scientists predict wildfirea range of issues from forecasting prevalent allergens to possible disease outbreaks from insects like ticks and mosquitoes. It can predict where wildfires are likely. The data can show where invasives could overtake native species and when visitors are most likely to visit national parks. 

For generations past however, phenology wasn’t a science (it wasn’t even a word); it was simply a practical life skill, developed over years of observation and was used to live in sync with the environment. spider webOne knew to plant peas when the daffodils bloomed or that a spider web with a short, sturdy frame signaled that strong winds and rain were coming. People looked at the astronomical calendar to know the date, but used the phenological calendar to know what to do.


(For those who are interested, see the comparison of the astronomical calendars at the end of the article.)


In 1849,charles morren the Belgian botanist Chalres Morren recognized the significance of the local truisms.  In response , he coined the term phenology ( phaino, meaning “to appear, to come into view” and logos, meaning “to study.”) as a way to authenticate and categorize what had been seen as collections of folklore.  Within a few years, nations across the world began recording, organizing and publishing data on ecological relationships with one of the primary goals being to protect and increase agricultural production. 

During the early years of data collection, the reports were fairly consistent, meaning that the studied events occurred with amazing consistency. Over time though, what had become predictable patterns began to shift and red flags went up. It became apparent to scientists, researchers and even everyday gardeners that a changing climate was affecting relationships among plants, animals and microbes. They soon realized that the environmental changes would have powerful impacts on humans.  It’s time that the rest of us start seeing and understanding what is happening in our world. 

world on balance
In a healthy world, there is a tenuous balance between plants and animals that is in turn tied to a predictable climate. (Keep in mind that weather and climate are different, weather being the day to day conditions, while climate is determined by long-term averages.) We know that shifts in climate result in shifts in both plant and animal activity.thermometer We also know, not suspect but know, that earth’s climate has changed. In the past century, the earth itself has experienced a 1.7°F increase in mean annual surface temperature, which sounds like no big deal, but actually represents a great deal of accumulated heat across the globe. Globally, every month in 2023 was one of the hottest 7 months ever recorded, while the last six months were the hottest since consistent record keeping began in the 1800s.. 

Research has proven that for every 1℉ temperature rise, there is at least a  2- 3 day earlier spring bloom. Locally, the Midwest has seen a rise in air temperature closer to 2 ℉. So, as temperatures rise, spring blooms here not only appear as much as 6 to 8 days earlier than expected, but also fade away sooner. As the higher temperatures continue, summer varieties, especially ornamental perennials, also begin to bloom and fade sooner.dead mum Fall favorites like mums and asters are in bloom earlier, but may not remain viable throughout an extended fall season. 

While warm sunny days, bright cheerful blooms and a longer planting season may seem like a benefit, the truth is that the shift we are seeing in our seasons is playing havoc with our ecological systems.  Please join us next week as we examine the impacts that our changing climate is having on our environment.




Our astronomical calendar holds us to four seasons– spring, summer, fall and winter. Each season begins and ends on a specific date, For example, spring officially begins every year on March 19th and ends the day before summer begins, which is either June 20th or 21st, depending on the summer solstice. According to this calendar, the seasons are defined by the movement of the planet through space rather than any activity on earth. 


On the other hand, the phenological calendar has 10 seasons (early spring, mid spring, late spring, early summer, mid summer, late summer, early autumn, mid autumn, late autumn and winter), each determined by the actions of specific “indicator plants.”spread across the United States. When the snowdrops bloom, then early spring has arrived and early spring tasks can begin. Early autumn arrives when black elderberries ripen and spicebush berries form.