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Rhonda Ferree's ILRiverHort

Rhonda Ferree's Horticulture Blog
walnut, sweetgum, chestnut, buckeye, hickory, acorn, locust, hedge

Do Plants Predict the Weather?


We've all heard wives'-tales that predict the weather. I can still hear my grandma saying, "Red sky at night, sailors delight; Red sky in morning, sailors warning." There are legends of people using groundhogs, hornets, woolly bear caterpillars, and even pig spleens to predict the weather. Recent Facebook posts say the Farmer's Almanac predicts a cold, snowy winter for us here in the Midwest.

It makes some sense that animals can respond to weather changes, but can plants do this too?

Ozark folklore uses persimmon seeds to predict the coming winter weather. Folklore says that if you slice a locally grown persimmon seed in half and look at its shape you can determine what kind of winter it will be. A spoon-shaped seed predicts a lot of heavy, wet snow (spoon= shovel). A fork shape means a mild winter with light, powdery snow. A knife predicts cold, icy, windy weather that "cuts" right through you.

For the past 17 years, the Jefferson County, Missouri, Extension Office has studied this method by checking local persimmon seeds in the fall and comparing the shapes with the winter that follows. The seeds have been accurate 13 out of the 17 years.

My grandpa believed that heavy-laden fruit trees called for a hard winter. He said that the trees were preparing to have offspring in case they didn't make it through the winter. I've heard similar stories for excessive amounts of seeds on maples and masses of acorns on oaks.

In reality, there are many different reasons for heavy seed loads. It could be due to heat or drought stress from the previous year. A mild spring with no killing frosts could allow for more pollination and seed production on early blooming trees. In a phenomenon called "masting," some trees produce heavier seed crops every other or every few years, probably due to evolutionary proliferation strategies.

Some plant responses are indeed based on weather. For example, tulip flowers open and close in reaction to various environmental conditions. Tulips will fold in their petals at night or on a rainy day to keep their pollen dry and their reproductive parts protected.

Weather can also sometimes confuse plants. When a warm spell interrupts a cold fall, some plants think it is spring and burst into bloom. Lilacs will occasionally do this because they don't need a long chilling treatment to bloom and believe it is time. Regardless of the botanical reason, some people think that if a shrub blooms in fall, you can expect a harsh winter.

In the end, these old-wives'-tales probably all work. After all, we live in Illinois; so, wait a minute and the weather will change anyway.

Do you have a surefire way to predict the weather? Tell me about it on my ILRiverHort Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/ILRiverHort.



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