The first delicate snowdrops were blooming Wednesday at Botanica, the morning I woke to feel the heaviness of winter fall away.
But the 17-degrees-below-zero temperature that the Wichita area experienced last week will come back to sting us even when we have happily moved on with our uncoated lives.
"We will see plant damage," Ward Upham of K-State said. "For example, crape myrtles will have top growth killed, but the plant should survive and send up new growth this spring." Nandinas are in the same camp. "Also, flower buds on forsythia are normally killed when temperatures dip below" 10 below, Upham said.
The 6 inches of snow on the ground was actually the only warm news — a blanket of snow insulates plants from the cold.
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On the plant-hardiness-zone map, Wichita is in Zone 6 (0 to 10 degrees below zero). The blast we got last week was from Zone 5 (minus 10 to minus 20) —up in southern Nebraska and Iowa. It was the lowest temperature Wichita has recorded in 29 years. That means that a 28-year-old tree listed as a Zone 6 tree may not survive the Zone 5 temperature we experienced last week, says extension agent Bob Neier. He thinks that any plant that isn't rated for Zone 5 or colder and wasn't protected by the snow has been damaged.
Some people have been arguing that Wichita has moved into a warmer Zone 7 over recent years, but a Zone 5 slam like we had last week does not bode well for anyone planting according to that assumption.
If a Zone 7 plant was above the snow line last week in Wichita, "it's probably toast," Bob says. For the plants from our Zone 6, "we'll see," he says.
Some people will say that their Zone 6 plants have survived many other bad winters, Bob says. But he counters: "That's like saying, 'I live in southern Florida and I've had my little pond for all these years and it's never had ice.' If it gets below 32, it has ice.
"If a (Zone 6) plant has never experienced (17 below) before, it's not hardy. It's been 29 years since it was this cold. There are trees potentially 28 years old that could die. It could be a sizable plant."
Before we panic about losing plants, we need to try patience. We'll have to see how things look in the spring, cut back the deadwood to what is still alive, and monitor the progress. The damage may not show up immediately.
When it got down to 21 below in February 1982, Bob says, some Zone 6 plants "died totally, and mimosas leafed out then slowly died back to just the lower trunks over the next year."
On the other hand, if we replace, say, a shrub too quickly, it could turn out that if we'd waited, the old shrub would have been the same size as the new one by late summer.
Perennials that were below the snow line should fare better, Bob says. Blueberries aren't hardy in the northern United States, for example, but they usually survive there because of a long-lasting snow cover. (Their tops do freeze off, however.)
Roses are trickier. The ones that weren't mulched, even some of them that were covered in snow, are going to freeze to the ground, Bob says. If you planted a yellow rose and it blooms pink this year, you'll know that it froze below the graft union.
"One plant I'm kind of concerned about is the Blue Atlas cedars: They're Zone 6, and they're looking bad already." If it's any comfort, there's nothing you could have done to protect them, Bob says.
Upham had this to say about fruit damage:
"Peach trees often have fruit bud damage when temperatures reach 5 to 10 degrees below zero. The tree will be fine, as the leaf buds are undamaged. Note that damage to fruit buds is progressive. In other words, a temperature of minus 10 for a short period will cause less damage than a sustained reading of 10 below zero. Also, the buds will show progressively more damage the further below minus 10 degrees the temperature reaches.
"Blackberries also can be damaged at 5 to 10 degrees below zero, but this is variety-dependent, as some of the newer thornless varieties are hardier. With blackberries, we are not worried about the fruit buds but the fruiting canes. Cold temperatures can kill all above-ground growth. However, the plant will survive and grow new canes from the crown that will fruit next year.
"Apples are hardier, and fruit buds are usually not damaged unless the temperature reaches minus 20 to minus 25 degrees. Red Delicious is one of our most tender varieties and can be damaged when temperatures reach minus 15."
We didn't spend a lot of time at minus 17, so let's hope the worst-case scenarios don't materialize.
To put it in some perspective, Bob recalls a plant death from 1982, the last time the temperature dropped lower than this year. In Pretty Prairie an old Chinese pistache that had come from a Southern seed source died from the cold. But the last time the temperature had dropped that low was in 1905, so the tree had had a good long life.
"So you don't say, 'No, I'm never going to plant another one,' " Bob says.
With any luck, it'll be another 29-plus years until we feel 17 below again.