As the light begins to come back into the days of the Northern Hemisphere and springtime comes closer, now is traditionally the time to be planting seeds, ready for the proliferation of life and colour which the new season will bring. However, this year the season seems to have come early – so early that in many countries, from Spain (1) to the USA (2), flowers which should normally arrive in late spring or early summer have been reported blooming in December. Here is very visual evidence that, regardless of one’s stance on the cause or implications of climate change, it is happening here and now. But what does this unseasonability mean for the plants of the North? And can we adapt to the changes to create a situation to our advantage?
In the last couple of months, reports have been blossoming all over the Northern Hemisphere of the ‘freakishly warm’ winter causing surprising behaviour in plants. In the USA, for example, many species of plant such as Hellebore (Helleborus spp.), Jasmine (Jasminum spp.) and Viburnum (Viburnum spp) which usually flower in mid to late spring already came into bloom as early as December (2). Similar reports have come from Spain (1). In Britain an in-depth citizen-led survey (3) has led to the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) documenting over 600 species of plant flowering in early January, as compared with the more usual 50 or 60 (4). I personally experienced many plants in bloom in Britain in early Januray, as well as, very confusingly, some fruit trees which had already begun to fruit. In South Italy I have witnessed the Elder (Sambucus Nigra) in full bloom, even though such flowers normally should not appear until late spring at the earliest. In India, temperatures have been reported at 4 – 5 degrees higher than is normal for the time of year (5).
Heating Up Down South
The unseasonability is not isolated to the Northern Hemisphere; in Australia, December 2015 was reported as one of the hottest on record (6), with temperatures in some places rising to 47 degrees Celsius (6). The impact of such extremity can be seen in the fact that many tree species such as Tea Tree (Melaleuca Alternifolia) experienced limbs falling off due to the pressures of the heat (7). In South America, some of the worst flooding “in five decades” (8) meant that more than 150,000 people in Uruguay, Panama, Brazil and Argentina had to leave their homes (8).
There are many theories for the reason for such unusual weather patterns, from the effects of the ocean current cycling known as El Niño (5) to global warming caused by humans (9). Such theories can be reassuring in the idea that we know what has caused this, therefore we are more prepared to deal with it. However, it seems more beneficial rather than theorising why the weather is like this, to look at the effects and how we can work with nature in order to create beneficial outcomes for ourselves and the ecosystems around us.
Possibly the most concerning consequence of the warm weather is that for many fruit tree species the cycle of fruiting is interrupted. For example, in Spain, almond trees throughout the country started blossoming as many as twenty days too early (1). These trees are now at risk of the flowers being destroyed if the weather changes and becomes colder again, meaning a loss of the crop of almonds (1). As Spain is rated as the second most almond-producing country in the world by the FAO (10), this could mean significant financial losses for the country, not to mention the fact that people will not be able to enjoy this tasty and nutritious nut.
There are also many species of fruit tree, such as cherry (Prunus Avium), apple (Malus Domesticus) and plum (Prunus Prunus spp.) which require a certain period of cold temperature in order to kickstart the fruiting cycle (ref). Judging by the unpredictability of the weather thus far into the year, such a cold spell could still be on its way; however, if these trees do not receive their cold period in time, as with the almonds it will mean a severe impairment to fruit production (ref).
So how can we respond? A useful example can be seen from the BSBI in Britain and Ireland. The survey where they found over 600 out-of-season plant species blooming is known as the New Year Plant Hunt (3), which has been going for five years and taking part in which is open to anyone who is interested (3). Over a three-hour period at some point during the New Year weekend participants record as many flowering plant species as they can find. The findings are then collated by the BSBI (3). This shows a creative way that communities can observe and interact with change, as people who are not necessarily scientists or botanists can help create meaningful data to aid with our actions in how we respond to nature’s ever-surprising ways.
We can use similar methods to help ourselves and our communities wherever we live. Documentation of what is happening is a very useful first step to taking any action, as exemplified with the ‘Observe and Interact’ principle. Wherever you live, can you document the plant species which are in bloom in your local area? What does that show you about the changes which are happening there?
Once documentation has taken place, which can be at any level, from individual up to global, then we can be in a better position to see what to do. One way in which we can use the principle ‘Creatively Use and Respond to Change’ could be to look at the opportunities created by the unseasonable warmth. The most short-term way to do this could be to begin planting annual species which will respond well to the particular temperatures which are happening at the moment, regardless of which season they should be planted in.
More longer-term solutions could be constructing elements which help to stabilise temperature in a local environment. For example, making micro-climate water landscapes such as those popularised by Sepp Holzer (see for example 11), or by utilising artificial outdoor environments such as biodomes or greenhouses. As noted in previous articles, there are already many of these artificial environments throughout the world, some in such large numbers that they can be seen from space (see for example 12, 13) so caution is probably advised when considering this option that in creating such a space, you keep in balance the surrounding life-web as well.
Such solutions will have to, if they wish to succeed, be flexible enough to incorporate any new changes which happen. In the educational approach known as Reggio Emilia, which takes a holistic view of school and recommends ‘the environment as teacher’ (see for example 14) and as such could be seen as a permaculture approach to education, a favourite maxim is to ‘expect the unexpected’ (14). The same can go for the climate, especially in such times as these. How can we take practical steps to do this? In Reggio Emilia, one thing which is recommended is to create an environment which is rich in things to discover, as well as adaptable to any innovative realities the child may imagine at any moment, and resilient enough to incorporate all the new activities which could possibly happen within it (14).
We can use this same approach in a very beneficial way to extend to our whole environment, and especially that part of it which will provide the food we eat. If we are facing the loss of major fruit crops this year we have to be imaginative in the short term with what we can replace them with; in the long term, however, one of the most beneficial things it seems we can be doing is helping ecosystems to flourish which are so diverse, resilient and adaptable that it does not matter if one or two species flower early, fruit late, or are damaged by unseasonable heat or cold.
In order to effectively do this we need to be experimenting, and collaborating with our communities – both the people living in our immediate vicinity and the globally-linked community of humans on Earth.
This experimentation and collaboration has already begun, and if we are to continue flourishing as humans, it needs to grow. Whatever your views on climate change, and wherever you live in the world, you have probably already noticed something unusual about the way the world is behaving compared to previous years. This change can be embraced and indeed there seems little point in lamenting it as it is already happening. In order to best mimic nature’s patterns and create mutually beneficial systems we need to be responding to the changes which she is continually showing us – and that means changing our own behaviour, here and now, to reflect more resilient communities and flexible responses.
1. Anderson, E, 2016. ‘Warm winter brings early almond blossom and climate change alarm’. The Local, 13/1/16. https://www.thelocal.es/20160113/spain-early-almond-blossom-winter-climate-change – retrieved 10/3/16
2. Ziegler, B, 2015. ‘Warm Weather Prompts Flowers to Bloom Way Too Soon’. Wall Street Journal, 24/12/15. https://www.wsj.com/articles/warm-weather-prompts-flowers-to-bloom-way-too-soon-1450993389 – retrieved 10/3/16
3. Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, 2016. ‘New Year Plant Hunt’. https://www.bsbi.org.uk/new_year_plant_hunt.html – retrieved 10/3/16
4. McCarthy, N, 2016. ‘More than 600 species of British flowers in bloom on New Year’s Day’. Independent, 25/1/16. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/more-than-600-species-of-british-flowers-in-bloom-on-new-years-day-a6833656.html – retrieved 10/3/16
5. Sinha, A, 2016. ‘Warm Winter: Blame it on the El Niño effect’. Indian Express, 6/1/16. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/warm-winter-blame-it-on-el-nino-effect/ – retrieved 10/3/16
6. Cormack, L, 2015. ‘Weather: December heatwave shatters record temperatures in South-Eastern Australia’. Sydney Morning Herald, 23/12/15. https://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather-december-heatwave-shatters-record-temperatures-in-southeastern-australia-20151222-gltuct.html – retrieved 10/3/16
7. ABC Australia, 2015. ‘Extreme heat sends SA temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius’. ABC News, 17/12/15. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-17/summer-heat-spell-grips-much-of-south-australia/7037720 – retrieved 10/3/16
8. BBC, 2015. ‘Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay flooding displaces 150,000’. BBC News, 26/12/15. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35179103 – retrieved 10/3/16
9. Clark Howard, B, 2015. ‘What’s Behind the Freakishly Warm Winter in the Eastern US?’ National Geographic, 23/12/15. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151223-warm-winter-december-heat-el-nino-jet-stream-weather-climate/ – retrieved 10/3/16
10. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States Corporate Document Repository, 2016. ‘Almond Production’. Produced by Regional Office for Europe. https://www.fao.org/docrep/x5337e/x5337e02.htm – retrieved 10/3/16
11. The Permaculture Research Institute, 2009. ‘Permaculture Miracles in the Austrian Mountains’. Permaculture News, 21/5/09. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/05/21/permaculture-miracles-in-the-austrian-mountains/ – retrieved 10/3/16
12. Haworth, C, 2015. ‘La Loma Viva’. Permaculture News, 27/5/15. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2015/05/27/la-loma-viva/ – retrieved 10/3/16
13. Hall, T, 2015. ‘The plastic mosaic you can see from space: Spain’s greenhouse complex’. Bloomberg Business, 2/15. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-02-20/the-mosaic-you-can-see-from-space-spain-s-massive-greenhouse-complex – retrieved 10/3/16
14. Strong-Wilson, T; Ellis, J, 2009. ‘Children and Place: Reggio Emilia’s Environment as Third Teacher’. Theory Into Practice, Volume 46, Issue 1, 2007 Special Issue:Reggio Emilia. Pp40-47. Available as a PDF here: https://www.stanleyteacherprep.org/uploads/2/3/3/0/23305258/children_and_place.strong-wilson__ellis.pdf – retrieved 10/3/16