It’s not easy for Punxsutawney Phil, or groundhogs in general. Also known as woodchucks, their name coming from the Algonquin (or possibly Narragansett) Indian word for the animal “Wuchak”. They have a heavy load; forecasting the entire coming of Spring without the aid of a meteorology degree or Doppler Radar. In fact, they only have one moment to do this monumental task, every February 2nd, also known as Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day began as a Pennsylvania German custom in the southwestern and central areas of Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, though it has it’s roots in ancient European weather lore (where it was a badger or sacred bear in the lead role). It is possible that this legend began as a folk embodiment of the confusion at the collision of two calendars. Some ancient traditions mark the change of season when holidays such as Imbolc, the Celtic celebration of the first annual experience that daylight makes a significant progress to the night. Other traditions held Spring’s start at the Vernal Equinox. So to settle the dispute, the Groundhog was thrust between these two factions, it’s Shadow Determination held forth to bring end to the crisis. He or she may use code words such as “shadow” or “clear, sunny day”, but what the Groundhog really is saying is “Danger”. And “chill out.”
But what does this all mean for us, the Central Texas Gardener? Early Spring temperatures can have an effect on not only your precious plot, but also your very health.
There are many factors to a plant deciding to bloom, soil nutrients, water, sun exposure, but day length and ambient temperature are key factors. Plants have proteins that sense the length of darkness, some plants require a certain length of this dark period to bloom at all, and this can mean warmer weather will have no affect on them at all.
However some herbaceous plants quickly die back after blooming, ie. daffodils, and an early spring can lead to an early dormancy. One warm day will not be enough to trick plants into bloom, but quite a few can do the trick. Many warm days can raise the temperature of the soil, changing not only seed germination and planting dates, but also the length of not only blooms, but a plant’s harvest length and growing season. Spinach, best planted in colder temperatures, will not last as long in our Texas summers.
Also, warmer temperatures can signal plant dangers. Insect emergence is triggered by temperature. Therefore, in years with an early bloom, there is an earlier insect emergence as well.
If you are an allergy sufferer, here is a caveat: Folks with limited pollen allergies, oak pollen for example, may not be as affected, but broad pollen sufferers, oak, grass, and rag weed, may be in for a rough summer.
So if an Early Spring possibly leads to shorter flowering periods, less of certain plant growth times, faster insects, and allergies, can you imagine the weight groundhogs must feel? And all the publicity, not to mention a bunch of suited-up Pennsylvanian men in top-hats pulling them from their warm burrows without warning, to bring possible terrible news to their fellow Americans everywhere?
The next time you see a groundhog, give him/her a smile and maybe a hug. They’ve earned it.