© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

When flowers don't only delight us

 A photo of lilacs in Massachusetts, in 2008.
Creative Commons
A photo of lilacs in Massachusetts, in 2008.

I couldn't help but be startled seeing lilacs in bloom in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the last week of September.

First it was one house around the corner. Then it was everywhere.

In Hadley, a feast of lilac blossoms stretched out along Rt. 47 — where normally, in fall, there would only be brown twigs.

Though the blossoms were confounding and a little scary, I did enjoy them, however strange it felt bending a branch with my thick-mittened hands to smell their perfume all through October. But what specifically was causing this?

From when I researched phenology, the study of seasonal biological occurrences, I know a certain combination of day length, temperature and rainfall triggers a plant to flower. These vary year to year, as we’ve all witnessed, but usually within certain limits.

Occasionally a freak heat wave in April might make my backyard magnolia flower. But we tend to think of these as chance events — that we can depend more or less on regular seasons.

For instance, Thoreau took meticulous notes on the precise dates flowers bloomed, and, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "if waked up from a trance…he could tell by the plants what time of year it was within two days.”

No more.

The lilacs in my neighborhood kept blooming into November. Then in December, I saw purple ground phlox flowering, followed by two dandelions in a South Hadley lawn.

If climate change only meant lilacs in autumn, we might think, "Well, that’s not that bad."

But it is.

Flowering plants go dormant in winter to conserve water and energy. Like them, we all need our down time. We’re not supposed to flower year-round.

Will the lilacs bloom again in May when pollinating insects are active? Once the timing is off, will it be able to switch back on?

If Thoreau woke up from a trance and saw these November lilacs in my yard, I suspect he wouldn’t be able to tell the time of year within two days. Or even two months.

"What have you done?" I imagine him asking. "What on Earth have you done?"

Commentator Susan Johnson lives and walks in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Related Content