The USDA updated the Plant Hardiness Zone this week, changing our zone to 8A. This is an example of how climate change is affecting gardens and farms throughout the country. We didn’t need a government to tell us. Record temperatures are announced in the national news and we feel the change. This corner of south-east Virginia has been in Zone 7B for longer than I have lived here. Weather stations across the nation, including the local one in Wakefield, have recorded increases in minimum winter temperatures, which now stands at 10-15 degrees F. (-12.2 to -9.4C.) in our district. We have merged with neighboring North Carolina, which is still in Zone 8A. Re-zoning inevitably lags after the facts. We haven’t had a bitterly cold winter for a long time. Moreover, plants we were advised are too tender to survive here now throw up green shoots in springtime.
My favorite is Lantana, a shrubby plant that dies down to the ground in the fall. Shoots appearing in May produce by late June waist-high leafy branches with abundant buds promising flowers to attract butterflies and wild bees in the summer. Even as I write this post at Thanksgiving, Lantana is still flowering outside. It seems as if our district has migrated to a milder place 100 miles further south, but of course, it’s the climate that has shifted. What are the implications for the distribution of wildlife? Will I live to see us join Zone 9, like Georgia, where they grow bananas?
“Drought—what drought?” That was a typical response to my question before this week’s news of wildfires in Virginia and the Governor declared a state of emergency. I’m sure farmers, beekeepers, gardeners, foresters, and firefighters have worried for weeks, if not longer, about the lack of rain. The difference in perception depends on how close we live to the soil. I noticed a deficiency before my garden well ran dry and a blanket of fall leaves crisp as cornflakes and far more flammable.
I understand puzzled reactions while lawns remain green, and we haven’t had a hose-pipe ban yet. The drought is less severe here than in Shenandoah and north-west of the state. Besides, plants are getting some relief on dewy mornings and there’s less evaporation than in July and August.
A drought can be overlooked until it becomes severe from creeping forward slowly and having impacts that vary with soil type, plant species, and temperature. For the same reason, climate deniers take cover when a sizzling summer is followed by a wet autumn and/or a chilly winter.
Rising sea levels and melting glaciers are undeniable evidence of global climate change whereas the weather is debated more, sometimes hotly. What is normal? Are memories of idyllic summers spent on the beach and winters sledding in our youth our baseline? Most people prefer a plain plus or minus answer whereas it comes down to probabilities (plenty of scope for politically motivated interpretation).
The US Drought Monitor keeps an archive of dry and wet periods since records began in 1895 (and from 400 AD based on dendrochronology). The dark red spikes on the graph for Virginia represent intense drought, and the reciprocal navy blue spikes show extreme wetness. The range between extremes is huge, and much greater than the famously damp UK climate (though recent storms begin to undermine its reputation for moderate weather).
Anthropogenic impacts on climate are reckoned to be notable after 1950. The graph doesn’t reveal much difference to my eyes. An algorithm using the raw data is needed to check if the pattern is random or has a subtle periodicity.
This week you can tell a Brit from the red poppy worn on his or her lapel. Today, I was a lone poppyist in the congregation for a Veterans Day service in the graveyard of Grace Episcopal Church, Yorktown. There are 107 graves from seven American conflicts, including two British burials. The last battle of the first war ended nearby in 1781. We grew up wearing poppies on Remembrance Day (the British name) and looked undressed without one. We stood at town memorials with veterans of World War 1 and World War II. All have since passed away and fewer descendants mark November 11, although never-ending wars somewhere in the world since 1945 is surely another reason. The poppy is an apt symbol, but the real flower is too delicate and short-lived to wear. But their seeds are resilient, shooting up to flower abundantly in disturbed soil. A fluttering mass of scarlet is a head-turner. The poem Flanders Fields launched the poppy as a symbol of public mourning. In Flanders Fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row … John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, composed it in the First World War. Poignant for me because my great uncle Leonard Saunders emigrated to Canada, dying at Passchendaele in 1917. A hundred years after McCrae was a pathologist at the Royal Vic, I joined the faculty. I often visited McGill’s Osler Library during my time in Montreal where you can see on exhibition the original poem he sent to a friend from the Front.