Weird weather tricking plants into flowering

Mel Stevens’ yucca plant that he and his wife Edna raised from a section of an Oregon relative’s indestructible plant has finally bloomed for the first time in the 10 years that it has been growing in the family’s Orchard Mesa yard. The interesting thing is that yucca is supposed to bloom in spring, not fall.

Look at this guy—all dressed up and nowhere to go. It’s kind of charming and kind of dorky.

Hey, buddy! Wrong season!

He’ll learn. No pollinators around, no promise of summer, colder weather coming—all those flowers are is pretty. Still, the yucca in Mel and Edna Stevens’ Orchard Mesa back yard began blooming last week, the only time it ever has, and it’s not the only plant unseasonably blooming.

Across western Colorado, there have been recent reports of not just yuccas blooming, but lilacs and pear trees showing off blossoms, spring flowers vivid among the autumn leaves. It’s pretty but strange, and not a little disconcerting. What does it mean?

“When a plant blooms out of season, it’s a sure sign of stress,” said Dennis Hill, Bookcliff Nursery manager. “He’s hurt, he’s in trouble. It’s a big warning that something’s out of whack.”

This unseasonable blooming isn’t uncommon, said Bob Hammon, an extension agent with the Colorado State University Tri-River Area Extension, “but it is strange.”

If it was just one plant blooming out of season, Hill said, it might indicate improper planting, an insect problem, fungus, not enough or too much water or other stressors specific to that individual plant. But because the unseasonable blooming is happening in isolated cases across the valley, it might speak to a 2012 that’s been strange water- and temperature-wise.

“I can’t say that this is the reason, but one theory might be that we had a really early spring and everything went really early,” said Margot Becktell, an assistant professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University. “And then we had a long, dry summer, so that could have stressed the plants.”

“We had a dry winter and it was warm January to March,” Hill said. “So, by April, it was bone dry. We had a lot of damage going into spring, and then by June it was so miserably hot and awful, so a lot of things got hurt then.

“Plus, then people overreacted with the watering restrictions—when it was their time to water, it was a flood. If we don’t get a good snowpack this winter, we’re going to be hurting next year.”

And more bad news: If a plant is blooming now, chances are high that it won’t bloom in spring.

“The normal pattern is plants bloom in spring then gather energy in summer,” Becktell explained. “They get the buds pre-set in fall, then finish developing the following spring.”

Which means, Hill said, that the unseasonable flowers being seen now are about six months too early. If every bud hasn’t popped out yet, there still might be some spring flowers in store for that plant, but the bigger concern should be what’s wrong with the plant, he said.

“You should be focusing on why is this guy unhappy,” Hill said. “Seeing those flowers in autumn could mean that potentially this guy’s life is in danger. Let’s diagnose what’s wrong.”

For the Stevens’ yucca, though, things actually look OK. They planted it outside the chain link fence surrounding their back yard, after taking a sprout from a yucca in the Myrtle Creek, Ore., yard of Edna’s sister, Beulah Neel, about seven years ago.

They put it in the ground and ... nothing. It took root and grew, but never bloomed. And it even had a near-death experience: Three years ago, a tree trimmer ran over it with his truck, crushing it to dirt level. But it came right back. Bob bought special cactus fertilizer for it, tried watering it more or less, yet nothing would induce blooming.

“It’s been looking vigorous, though, and then a few days ago we looked out and thought my goodness, it’s blooming!” Edna Stevens recalled.

So, there it is, looking sassy, blooming in October, a yucca with its calendar all mixed up.


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