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updated: 4/12/2012 11:58 AM

Arboretum botanist tracks blooms and other signs of spring's progress

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  • Warm weather has many trees flowering three to four weeks early at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

       Warm weather has many trees flowering three to four weeks early at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 

Ed Hedborn, who has been with the Morton Arboretum in Lisle for 35 years, has never seen anything like this.

"It feels like I'm in the middle of May," Hedborn says. "You turn around and something new blooms right behind your back."

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Hedborn, an arboretum botanist, is also its official "color scout."

In spring, he traverses the arboretum's 1,700 acres making notes on what's blooming and what's not. His list is used not only by visitors who await the bloom of favorite plants, but also by scientists worldwide who follow plant life cycles and responses to weather.

This science, phenology, the study of plant and animal responses to seasonal and annual temperature and other climate changes, is having a humdinger of a year. The record heat in March has accelerated plants' normal growth cycles by four to five weeks as of early April.

"Take Malus 'Donald Wyman,'" Hedborn says, naming a popular crabapple cultivar. "The earliest I've ever recorded its bloom was April 19, and on average it blooms on the sixth of May."

This year, it was blooming in March, and many other crabapples joined suit.

Crabapples are not the only early bloomers.

"The magnolia season went in less than a week," Hedborn says.

Daffodil Glade at the arboretum was ablaze, but still has some blooms in protected locations.

Will the remaining spring buds only be duds? Will April showers just bring May mud? Because of the diversity of plants at the arboretum, there is always something blooming, but home gardens might be out of sync.

Hedborn denies owning a crystal ball, but notes that a spate of cool weather could likely bring things back to normal. A frost would be bad news, however, particularly for fruit growers where trees might lose their buds to the cold.

"As long as we don't get a cold-weather frost, we should have normal fruit set," Hedborn reassures.

Hedborn finds a silver lining in a potential cold snap.

"Garden pests are already emerging," he notes. "Cold weather should kill a lot of early insect pests."

Eastern tent caterpillars and cedar-apple rust already have been spotted. Gardeners are urged to call the arboretum's plant clinic with questions about earlier spraying regimes at (630) 719-2424.

What do the birds and the bees make of this warm weather?

"There are pollinators out," Hedborn says. "I've seen early bumblebees and other bee species."

This is good, because if plants bloom before the pollinators emerge, the whole seed-making cycle is off.

"Nest-building is going on earlier than normal," Hedborn says. "The birds are just following the weather cues."

Because the arboretum grows more than 222,000 trees, shrubs and flowers, you can bet there will be more blooms to come, even though the timing may be earlier than normal.

In the East Woods, watch Ed Hedborn's reports for later-season wildflowers like mayflower, jack-in-the-pulpit, woodland phlox and wild geranium. On Saturday, April 21, a docent will lead a walk through the oak collection to learn about these ephemeral flowers. You can register through the education department on the arboretum's website.

Daffodil Glade on the arboretum's west side and Bulb Meadow on the east side feature mid- and late-season daffodils and other bulbs.

A spring tour is never complete without a visit to Lake Marmo, where redbuds are followed by other early blooms. The arboretum's open-air tram tours begin in April, or there are 16 miles of hiking trails to explore.

You might even run into Ed, the color scout. Don't worry if he looks a little harried. The poor guy's been scouting out blooms since early March!

• Cathy Maloney is a writer for the Morton Arboretum. Her column appears monthly in Neighbor.

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