Was it her? Had she pruned too late? Or maybe it was her husband. “He hates the wisteria,” she said, and when he cut its invasive vines back from the house, maybe he’d been too “ruthless.”
All Susan Senator knew was that it was spring, and that when she gazed at the plant from her porch, she did not smell its lovely bubblegum scent, and she did not see its magical shower of lavender and white and pink petals.
“It’s like a fairy tale kind of thing to have next to your house,” said Senator, a Brookline author.
Well, usually, at least.
Alas, all over town it’s the same story, with azaleas, forsythia, rhododendrons, and their colleagues underperforming. Where there should be flowers and joy, we have mere leaves, bare stems — self-doubt.
“Everyone blames themselves,” said George Stanchfield, a landscape designer who runs the popular South of Boston Gardeners with George Stanchfield Facebook group. “You wonder what you did wrong.”
The disappointing spring bloom is all the more painful because it comes against a backdrop of climate change — not the fault of any one gardener, but rather the collective action of the human species. Considering the existential threat to our lives, the loss of a few spring blooms could seem like a trivial complaint. But for many gardeners, the struggling flowers are a visceral reminder of how much our world is changing.
Last summer’s drought, the historic arctic blast in early February, the wild swings in temperature — they’re all contributing to the lackluster spring.
“I stopped guaranteeing plants years ago,” said landscape designer Faith Michaels. “With global warming, you never know.”
We’ll return to the unhappy scientific explanation in a moment, but first let’s talk about the mind games the plants are playing with gardeners, making some fear they over watered or fertilized, and others worry that they under watered or fertilized. Or that they pruned too early. No, too late!
And those are just the reality-based theories. One of my friends thinks her bloomless azaleas are a reflection of her long-ago fertility challenges. “I always take plants not growing personally,” she said.
Another fears her flower-free hydrangeas are the result of a “hex.”
Whatever the reason — who knows, maybe the Celtics are somehow culpable — we’ve been robbed.
There’s always next year, of course. But the pandemic has driven home the point that life does not go on forever, so that’s not as much solace as it once was.
“I don’t have enough springs left for this sort of nonflowering nonsense,” said Lauren Beckham Falcone, the WROR radio personality.
The situation is so intense that even nongardeners are noticing. “Why is my bamboo dead?” clients are asking Michaels, principal of Faithful Flowers.
What is going on? As our bloom-challenged spring continues, there are many theories: It’s been too cold, too warm, too dry, too wet, too changeable, too snowless, too bananas.
When I ran the hypotheses (minus the fertility issues and the hex) by Miles Sax, assistant curator of living collections at the Arnold Arboretum, he pointed to two main culprits.
First, the critical drought conditions of last summer may have outright killed some plants. Those that were able to tolerate the drought may have done so by going into “survival mode.” They used any available water to stay alive performing critical functions, he said, and may not have been able to put as much energy into storing carbohydrates for the winter and setting buds for this year.
The other big problem happened on Feb. 4, when the temperature dipped to minus 11.6 degrees at the Jamaica Plain arboretum. “That’s a real test of cold hardiness for plants,” he said.
The historic cold was compounded by “desiccating winds” that affected even plants that usually are protected in warmer microclimates in the landscape. And see-sawing temperatures aren’t good either, Sax said. An unseasonably warm fall and winter may not have allowed plants to acclimatize to the cold winter temperatures when they did show up.
One landscaper told me Boston’s climate has changed so much that she thought we’d been moved to a different zone on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
That has not happened — at least not yet. Considering the non-Boston winter we just sailed through — except for the arctic blast in early February — a zone shift might actually make sense. Should we really still be in 6b???
When I put the question to the USDA, I was directed to Todd Rounsaville, a horticulturist who leads the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Woody Landscape Plant Germplasm Repository.
There is no release date scheduled for an update to the 2012 map currently in use, he said.
He also explained that a single bonkers winter wouldn’t send Greater Boston into a different hardiness zone anyway — zones are determined by the minimum annual low temperature, averaged over 30 years (a good timeframe, he said, because it is roughly the average lifespan of a landscape plant).
Meanwhile, gardeners aren’t the only ones disappointed by the lack of spring color. Real estate agent Kris Hanrahan had been planning to photograph a glorious cherry tree that dominates the backyard of a listing in Roslindale, but this year the tree’s a dud — and well, without mood-setting pictures of those light pink blossoms, it’s harder to pop in the crucial online arena.
“People are attracted to properties that look like they’re in a magazine,” Hanrahan, an agent with the Muncey Group, said wistfully.