Tallahassee's Mild Winter Blooming Into An Early Spring

Feb 1, 2017

Observant local residents may be noticing it’s looking a lot like springtime in Tallahassee. Walking down the red brick path at Maclay Gardens State Park in Northeast Tallahassee, flowers are everywhere. Thirty foot high Japanese magnolias tower above rows of camellias. Soft pink and deep fuchsia petals dust the ground. And then there’s the rows and rows of azaleas...in February.

Formosa azaleas blooming prematurely at Tallahassee's Maclay Gardens.
Credit Kate Payne

Maclay Gardens landscape specialist John Melton points out a particularly vibrant patch of azalea blooms.

“The azalea hillside, see we’re starting to light up with the pinks and the whites coming in up here,” he said.

He says many of the flowering trees and shrubs there are actually blooming when they should. But those azaleas? They’re early.

“The Japanese magnolia, the big trees here, it’s their time of year... As we go we’re going to see a variety called Fielder’s White azalea up here, now that’s early. I wouldn’t expect to see that pop for another month or so,” he said.

Another premature blossom is the Formosa azalea, with a deep fuchsia bloom that's easy to spot around town. Melton says the early bloomers are making everything else seem early too.

Landscape Development Specialist John Melton inspects a Japanese magnolia blossom at Maclay Gardens.
Credit Kate Payne

“When you see that color, that bright Formosa color, it just opens your eyes. And your eye is drawn to it and then you see everything else flowering around it,” Melton said.

University of Florida botanist Gary Knox says plants primarily depend on night and day length to determine when they should bloom. But the unseasonable temperatures are overpowering those other environmental cues.

“The amount of warm weather that we’re receiving is so exceptional that it overrides the ability of the plant to detect cool temperatures. So it continues growing anyway,” Knox said.

And the early blooming could leave plants vulnerable, especially fruit trees.

“Particularly if you’re hoping to get a crop of peaches, you could get a freeze come along and that would damage the flowers to the extent that they wouldn’t be able to form fruits,” Knox said.

But Knox says a pattern is emerging. In fact, as warm weather creeps northward, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has redrawn its map of regional climates, called hardiness zones.

Azaleas usually bloom in late February or early March.
Credit Kate Payne

“The question is whether this is going to become a long-term trend, or whether we’ll have another change in the climate that will reverse this. At this point it’s looking like a long-term trend that’s going to continue,” Knox said.

But in the meantime, John Melton says enjoy the early spring.

“Even though we won’t have a late show as good as years past, this year the azaleas are blooming with the Japanese magnolias all at once. So it is one giant, although it might be brief this year, one beautiful show right now,” he said.

Maclay Gardens should be in peak bloom in the next three to five days.