So long winter, we hardly knew you.
Spring is still be a week away on the calendar, but outdoors it’s already in full swing.
Thank you, El Nino.
The recurring warm-weather pattern has practically turned Western Washington into the tropics.
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Winter-flowering plants are colliding with spring blossoms, and allergy sufferers are reaching for the Claritin.
“(Temperatures have) been substantially above normal since the New Year,” said Cliff Mass, University of Washington meteorology professor and KPLU weather commentator. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Add in the biggest drip the region has ever seen and winter has all but been washed away with a flood of flower blossoms.
“This year it seems everything is blooming at once, and it looks great,” said gardening columnist Marianne Binetti. “The hummingbirds love it. I saw them in early February.”
The veteran gardener knows winter might make one last comeback.
“Plants that are marginally hardy are waking up a little too early, and if we get a good freeze in March or April they will be killed,” she said.
JACK FROST GOT LOST
The average last frost in Puget Sound occurs in late April to early May. But Mass said gardeners shouldn’t worry too much this year.
“We’re probably quite safe to plant anything you want now,” he said. “The chance of frost damage is pretty slight at this point. In El Nino years, we tend to have far less of the arctic outbreaks.”
The turning point came just after Jan. 1, when temperatures became unseasonably high. Lows were in the 50s and highs broke 60 repeatedly at Sea-Tac Airport.
“Since around New Year’s, the temps have really revved up,” Mass said. “It’s three to eight degrees above normal. It’s consistent with a strong El Nino.”
According the state climatologist’s office, Sea-Tac Airport saw its wettest December through February on record with 24.54 inches of rain. Record keeping began in 1945.
February also saw record-breaking temperatures. High atmospheric pressure resulted in temperatures topping 70 on the coast.
Despite the warm weather, snowpack in the Cascades looks good, averaging between 90 and 115 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
BEES GET BUSY
Tacoma beekeeper Jeff Jones keeps seven hives in his and a neighbor’s yard. The bees began their spring activities early this year.
“I notice them ramping up,” Jones said. “The queens are starting to lay lots of eggs. They are bringing in gobs and gobs of pollen.”
He’s also seen honeycomb filled with nectar.
The bees’ activities are on a similar timeline compared to 2015, said Jones, who expects to start seeing swarms in late March, as he did last year.
“It’s a natural way that a healthy hive replicates itself and a good sign that some colonies are doing well,” said Franclyn Heinecke, president of the Pierce County Beekeepers Association.
Homeowners who find a mass of bees hanging from a tree branch needn’t panic. The bees are virtually harmless when they don’t have a hive to defend.
They’re also valuable to beekeepers. Contact the association for removal.
“We have beekeepers in every area of the region who are ready and able to get a swarm,” Heinecke said.
GARDENERS STAY INDOORS
Gardeners don’t like to get wet.
Local nurseries say any enthusiasm over the recent warm weather has been tempered by the rain.
“If it’s raining a lot, it does slow down business in our industry,” said Maidee Watson of Puyallup’s Watson’s Nursery.
“January and February were great for us. Starting last weekend things began to slow down because of the rain.”
Sumner’s Windmill Gardens reported the same story.
“People don’t want to do a lot of yardwork when it’s pouring down rain,” said Windmill’s administrative controller, Wendy Pedersen.
Terrarium gardening, a fad of the 1970s, is making a comeback, according to Pedersen, and the nursery is adding space to accommodate it.
“It’s a neat thing for Washington because we just never know when we’re going to have a nice day,” she said.
SNEEZING AND WHEEZING
Sepehr Oliaei, an ear, nose and throat doctor with MultiCare in Tacoma, began seeing patients with severe allergies in early February. He attributes it to an early pollen season.
The record-breaking winter rains could lead to prolonged suffering for allergy and asthma patients if temperatures stay above normal.
“(The rain) promotes the root growth of trees, so they tend to have a more vigorous pollen production in the following spring,” Oliaei said.
Recent pollen counts have been in the low to moderate range from trees. Grass and weed seasons have yet to hit.
Oliaei recommends a strong defense against the upcoming allergy season.
“It’s a three-pronged approach with allergies,” he said. “One is avoidance, two is medication and No. 3 is allergy testing and, potentially, allergy shots for desensitization.”
Oliaei urges his patients to monitor pollen counts, avoid going outside in early morning when pollen peaks, and wash clothes and hair more often.
But there’s more than pollen in the air. Mold also is aloft. And conditions are ripe.
“You need warm and wet,” Oliaei said. “If you have those two things you’re going to have increased mold counts.”
The namesakes at Federal Way’s Rhododendron Botanical Species Garden are in full bloom, a month ahead of schedule.
“Some rhododendrons that normally bloom in mid-April are in bloom now and overlapping the normally early blooming species,” said Katie Swickard, the garden’s Program & Outreach manager. “Visitors are able to see two seasons of bloom at one time.”
Along with the rhododendrons, the garden has magnolias, cherries, winter hazels and other plants in full bloom, Swickard said
The early spring will not jeopardize the region’s grande dame of flower-themed events, the Daffodil Parade on April 9.
Executive director Steve James said daffodils are being harvested now and placed in cold storage.
“It just seems like they’re wanting to bloom earlier and earlier,” he said of the flowers.
But there are no plans to move the parade earlier in the year. The later it is, the less likely it will rain.
“It’s a balance of nature and enjoying the parade,” James said.
But that’s no guarantee that this year’s parade will be dry.
If it’s not, blame El Nino.