What Makes It Winter?

rosesSteven Popkes’s Sunday post on spring in New England inspired me to look up the temperatures in Austin for this past winter, to see if it was truly as mild as I thought it was. And it was: we had ten days where the low was at freezing or below — the lowest temperature all winter was 27 — and six days where the day’s high was below 50 (the high never got lower than 42). Most of the freezing lows were in December. No snow. No ice storms.

We gets lots of sun in the winter because our rain doesn’t come in predictable patterns. Houston has a lot of gray days in winter, but Austin doesn’t. So even when there’s a nasty north wind blowing, we can get lots of sun.

Having spent a lot of years in Washington, DC, I find it hard to consider that kind of weather “winter.” If I can leave the house without needing hat and gloves and wearing a heavy wool sweater under my jacket, it isn’t winter. In the five years I’ve lived in Austin, we might have experienced a week or so of winter by that definition.

But the thing is, the plants consider it winter. Over the winter, my trees lost all their leaves (I don’t have any evergreens) and a lot of my perennials died Buddha under the hibiscusback, some just going brown and dormant and others dying back to the ground.

Now my trees are full of leaves, my canna lilies and hibiscus are shooting up amid the dead stalks from last year, and my roses are full of flowers. The trumpet vine, which looked like a bunch of brown sticks stuck in the chain link fence, is now sending out green shoots. Not to mention that my neighbor’s bluebonnets are just about through blooming — we got enough rain this winter to produce some wildflowers this year.

On the East Coast, trees start to leaf out and flowers send out shoots in temperature levels that are similar to what passes for winter in Austin. So temperature isn’t the only issue here. The amount of daylight obviously has a lot to do with triggering plant responses. (Steve, who is a biologist, can probably explain it in detail.)

The fact that we don’t get a lot of gray days in winter has led me to conclude that our winter days are much longer than those farther north. But I just looked up the Winter Solstice in Austin as compared to Washington, DC, and the truth is that the Austin day is just 37 minutes longer than the DC one — 10 hours and 11 minutes of sunshine as opposed to 9 hours and 26 minutes.

In February — possibly the nicest month of the year in Austin and the most miserable in DC — the difference in day length declines dramatically from about 30 minutes to about 13.

The biggest difference I see in plants between Austin and DC is that you can’t grow plants in Austin that need serious cold in the winter — some bulbs do OK here, but you have to dig up tulips and put them in the freezer for the winter — and you can’t grow plants in DC that can’t handle  significant freezes. But oaks still lose their leaves in Austin and flowers poke out in February in DC even if there’s snow on the ground.

For me — a person who loves sunshine and hates having to bundle up to go outside (I don’t mind cold so much, but I hate the hassle of winter clothing) — there’s a major difference between February in the two cities. But for plants, the difference isn’t as important.

I don’t think we had winter here last year, but the plants tell a different story.

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What Makes It Winter? — 1 Comment

  1. Winters here are pretty wimpy compared to other northern cities I’ve lived in (Chicago/Omaha). The average January temperature in the DC metro area is 34 degrees, and the last big snow was in the winter of 2002/3. I like the climate here because you still get the four seasons, but you don’t get the extreme bitter winters. This past winter was unusually cold, but very little snow fell. The growing season here is one to two months longer than it is in Chicago. I’ve actually seen mosquitoes outdoors in January during one particularly warm winter.