Macon’s signature Cherry Blossom Festival ended three weeks ago, but most of the blooms have yet to arrive.
In the 900 block of Park Place, there are more flowers on the front door wreath than on the two Yoshino cherry trees still struggling to bloom in the yard.
Horticulturist Michael Stachowicz, who keeps watch on the famed ring of palest rose at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., could hardly believe some trees in the Deep South are still bare.
“I have never seen a mix of buds and leaves like that,” Stachowicz emailed after reviewing snapshots of Macon trees. “Makes no sense considering that you guys had the warmth to push out the flowers.”
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Late last month in downtown Macon, festival-goers flocked for free ice cream with only a few blossoms peeking out from the buds on the top branches of the tree canopy in Third Street Park.
Some trees have hardly changed.
“We’ve got some with no leaves,” Sam Kitchens, director of Macon-Bibb County Parks and Beautification, said Friday. “And we’re worried about next year.”
Like peach trees, Yoshinos need a certain number of chill hours to set buds.
Research horticulturist Tom Beckman at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southeastern Fruit and Tree-Nut Research Lab in Byron, said Middle Georgia hit a record low number of chill hours over the winter season.
“It’s a very strange year,” Beckman said.
The fifth-warmest winter in Macon’s history followed months of drought, further complicating growing conditions.
“We’re in such uncharted territory, who knows?” Beckman said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic bullet for this.”
Mild conditions led to three freezing mornings in mid-March with a low of 26 in Macon on March 16.
The same week in the nation’s capitol, snow and ice enveloped emerging cherry blossoms that were lulled from their winter slumber by warm temperatures around Washington D.C.
The trees in the National Mall peaked on March 25, while Macon’s trees were hardly setting buds.
“We had a freeze that did kill some blooms, but we soldiered on,” said Stachowicz, who works for the National Park Service. “There is no way you should be behind us.”
In Macon, Bill Fickling III keeps records of the family’s famous trees that typically have a peak bloom of March 23.
Barely a blossom was on the trees on that date this year.
Landscape and garden expert Todd Goulding said the cherry trees were doomed by the temperature swings.
“The warm winter and the late cold snap messed with what they were trying to do,” Goulding said.
Macon ended 2016 nearly a foot below normal rainfall after months of drought.
The dry conditions proved deadly for many pine trees, magnolias and ornamental shrubs, but Kitchens said the cherry trees in the park are irrigated, along with the flowers and bushes in the median.
Along some spots on the Cherry Blossom Trail, there are no sprinklers, he said.
“There was no real difference between irrigated trees and those that have not been watered,” Kitchens said. “(Weather) had them so confused this year that no amount of irrigation or fertilizer would do anything.”
Around the national monuments, Stachowicz describes his role as being sort of a “Columbo” for plants.
The Southern “no-see-no” Yoshinos are a head-scratching mystery to him, although it’s difficult to do detective work from 670 miles away.
“I don’t believe it’s just one thing,” he said.
Drought stress could play a role, in addition to the late freeze during the normal blooming period, he thought.
Although January’s heavy rain washed away drought conditions for a few months, Thursday’s Drought Monitor shows a return of moderate drought through Middle Georgia.
Trees that are slow to emerge from winter dormancy could be awakening just in time for a return to stressful growing conditions.
“If this continues, we’re going to have a hard time catching up,” Beckman said.
As he monitors the peach trees, some varieties are very late, like the cherry trees.
“They’re not breaking buds evenly at all,” he said.
Commercial growers have access to dormant-breaking compounds, but homeowners have little recourse to compensate for the vacillating temperatures that confused the trees.
To make matters worse, he said, new growth emerging in late season can be burned. Temperatures are already approaching 90 degrees, which can do permanent damage to the tree.
He suggests pruning trees to stimulate late budding, and maintaining generous irrigation.
“There’s only so much you can do,” he said. “It’s an interesting year.”