On the last night of January it was 3 degrees below zero. Just 24 hours earlier, we had a soaking rainstorm, fog and flooding. The day before that it was 60 degrees. This sort of thing is more or less normal for Chicago; the only thing that would be abnormal in a Midwestern winter would be steady, moderate temperatures and mild breezes.
This year has actually been pretty boring in Chicago. New York and New Jersey got shredded by Hurricane Sandy, West Texas and Georgia got socked with blizzards and tornadoes, but we didn’t get an inch of snow until the last week of January. Of course back on Ground Hog Day in 2011, we got 20 inches.
And that’s why the Midwest is so hard on plants. It’s not the cold; it’s the uncertainty. Warm spells just after Christmas beckon daffodil foliage out of the ground so it can be slashed down by the next freeze. The magnolias whose buds were swelling three days ago were fooled by a little sunshine, like tourists who leave the puffer coat in the hotel room, and now it’s below zero. Chicago weather loves to prey on innocent foreigners.
Native plants don’t sprout in January. An anything-can-happen climate selects for wary species. The natives go dormant earlier in the fall and most stay dormant longer in the spring than imports from China and Europe, from places where winters may be cold, but they wax and wane in a steadier and more predictable progression.
That’s why the very earliest spring blooms in our gardens come from far away. Snowdrops hail from the mountains of Turkey and the Caucasus; they’re not afraid of cold, but they naively expect that once the soil starts to warm just a little bit it will warm a little bit more every day. So they often bloom bravely in January or February warm spells. Only if we have snow cover to shelter them will their blooms survive the bitter cold that so often follows.
Buttercup-yellow winter aconite, from shady Eurasian woodlands, and Iris reticulata, from high, cold places in Iran and Turkey, are other early bloomers. I look forward to them every February, but in a winter like this, with no snow to speak of, and with no greenhouse to buffer the wild weather swings, I don’t hope for them to last.
I get a special thrill from the first native wildflowers in my garden, the sharp-lobed hepatica that blooms in March. It has something to do with knowing that periwinkle-blue flower has been blooming in more or less that place since the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago.
But I have a different delight in the brave, bright bloomers of February. Far from home, they may have been tricked into blooming in a strange spring in a strange land, but they give it their all.