Cold front may bring an end to 'spring'

A big chill weekend

Warmth has played tricks on some area plants


Thoroughbreds stand in a paddock in an early morning fog at Ocala Stud Farm on SW 27th Avenue in Ocala on Tuesday.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 12:56 a.m.

For most of 2005, Mother Nature has played an April Fool's joke on some plants in North Central Florida.

She has tricked them into thinking it's April instead of January.

But Mother will get serious by this weekend, as a cold front moving through the area late Friday could produce low temperatures of about 40 degrees Sunday morning. "Change is a-comin'," said Jason Deese, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville.

The first half of January in the Gainesville area has seen almost daily high temperatures at or near 80 degrees. Only twice since New Year's Day have lows dipped into the 40s, and then just barely; most nights have been in the 50s.

"The spring-like weather has caused some plants to put on new growth when they should still be dormant," said Wendy Wilber, residential horticulture agent for the Alachua County Extension Service.

"I had a couple of calls (Monday) about peach trees blooming," she said. "St. Augustine grass has begun to green and grow, when it should be dormant now. Even some of our spring-blooming azaleas may be blooming in some areas."

A maple tree outside her office on Monday was flush with little crimson flowers.

"Normally, it's late February before you see that," Wilber said.

Deese said the warm spell has been caused by fairly strong high pressure that has lingered over the region and blocked cold fronts from moving into Florida. It has produced few record-high temperatures, he said, and weather like this in January is not unprecedented.

"What's unusual is how long it has lasted," Deese said. "It doesn't usually last two weeks."

Highs near 80 are predicted through Thursday. A cold front will start moving into the area Friday morning, preceded by a line of showers. It could start feeling cooler Friday afternoon - when the high should be about 68 - and definitely by Saturday.

The high Saturday afternoon is expected to be in the lower 60s after a morning low in the lower 40s, Deese said. But there's a chance the cold front could stall over Central Florida, he said, which could create windy and cloudy nor'easter conditions that could make Saturday in North Central Florida feel colder than the temperature indicates.

The cool-down should continue into Sunday, he said, with a low of about 40 in the morning and warming to the low 60s Sunday afternoon.

"We're looking at another reinforcing shot of cooler weather early next week," Deese said. "That's a little too far out to make predictions on how cold it might get . . . but we could see highs in the upper 50s."

Gary Brinen, commercial horticulture agent for the Alachua County Extension Service, said he doesn't think the tricky weather has awakened most dormant plants yet.

"But I'm afraid that it may interrupt the dormancy requirements for 'chill hours,' " he said. "They might have gotten enough cool weather in December for dormancy, but when you have high temperatures like we've had, that subtracts from the chill hours they need.

"Then you have the problem of plants coming out of dormancy and putting on new growth, and that would make them more susceptible to freezes," Brinen said. "It takes up some of the stores of energy in the roots and weakens the plant."

Even if a light freeze is in the cards next week, he said, it should cause few if any problems with most non-tropical flowers and fruits - such as strawberries - which usually can handle temperatures down to about 28 degrees. Tropical plants such as bananas and cannas can get zapped at 32 degrees, Brinen said, and many were turned brown by the first freeze in December.

"The danger after a warm period is that it may rain and then freeze, and plants seem to be more susceptible to freeze after a sustained warm period," he said.

One area nurseryman said that although some plants may have been tricked into blooming early this month, most of his plants remain safely in dormancy.

"We want things to stay dormant, and we do that by cutting back on fertilizer and water," said Alan Shapiro, owner of Grandiflora, formerly called San Felasco Nursery.

"Most things got a pretty good shock of cold in December," he said. "I'm hopeful and confident that it's been cold enough this winter to keep them dormant. I haven't seen a lot of things pushing out of dormancy.

"If it stayed 75 degrees for another week or two, I probably would be a little worried," Shapiro said.

Not to worry. More chill hours are on the way.

Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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