Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986


the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life.

Buttercups, Arrow Leaf Balsam Root, Oregon grape, forsythia… the signs of Spring’s arrival are hard to miss.  Yellow flowers bloom early.  Normally people just recognize the changes of the season without much fuss.  Plants flowering one species after another is expected.  But in a Spring where many things don’t seem quite normal, trying to pick out what is and isn’t “normal” requires some recording, not just in the current year, but year after year.

This can be an important project for farmers.  I remember being puzzled by a historical diary found near Colville.  It turned out to be a 5-year diary.  Information was recorded for the same date for 5 consecutive years.  This year I started noting what is blooming every day.  It was fun looking for something new to be in bloom as I went about my morning chores. If I was using a 5-year diary, it would start to be more useful year after year.

The series of blooms starting May 1st went like this: cherry, dandelion, narcissus, lilac, apple, quince, caragana, Sheppard’s purse, choke cherry, raspberry, rowan, ceanothus, Japanese Chain Tree, pine pollen, white iris, orchard grass.  Of course, this is too simple and almost worthless by itself.  A comprehensive look would record when the bloom was over, what the weather was like etc.  Not as much fun at first, but more useful over time.

Seems like we farmers are often debating what happened last year vs this year.  Remember the winter of 2022-2023 when a big freeze struck at the end of a long warm Fall and the leaves stayed on the apple trees all winter?  Things do change not just year to year but this Spring, day to day.  Having a record of what is changing and what is staying the same would refresh a lot of memories.

We are not the only ones being affected or paying attention. The weather warms. Insects emerge. Birds migrate. Bears wake up. Every living thing is dependent on the life cycles of every other living thing.  We are all going through these changes together. The bigger the scope of what you see going on in Nature, the more sense it makes.  For instance, queen bumblebees emerge as the first flowers do.  Soon queens have built nests of wax filled with nectar and pollen from those flowers.  In 3 or 4 weeks after they lay eggs in those nests, new female bees are born. ( As the new bees emerge, many new sources of honey and pollen are in bloom on bigger trees and bushes just in time to feed them.  Baby deer are born when the grass and hay are high and producing milk is easy. (Hiding fawns is easy then too but dangerous if in a field that will be mowed.) Baby birds are born when insects are plentiful and berries start to ripen. Flowers bloom in series and can be used to show the timing of many cycles.

Note How the last Spring Frost has progressed to earlier and earlier and the 1st Fall frost has become much later over the last 130 years, especially the last 40 years.

Farmers are not the only ones taking note.  The science of Phenology is all about looking at these relationships and seeing what causes changes in them.  The United States has a National Phenology Network,  Their website has a lot of interesting data for all the United States broken down by states and areas within states.  A chart of the changes in the date of the last Spring frost and the last Fall frost over the last 125 years shows a steady extension of frost-free days by about 2 weeks over the last 40 years.

This kind of information is good to know at a general level.  Applying it to our neighborhood, especially with its variety of elevations and microclimates would be tricky. There are local phenology programs, mostly run by academic institutions, but none are identified in our area on the USANPN map.  Basically, we are on our own.

What about the plants, insects and animals directly experiencing and adapting to these changes right here? Do they know more than we do? Some conversations have led to this conclusion.  The initial blooms of many species seem to be closer together this year. The take-away is that they are all trying to get their summer life cycle over while there is still enough moisture and low enough temperatures to mature.  I hope so, but without better long-term data, it is hard to prove.

Sometimes we rely on old rules of thumb, like color bands on the wooly bear caterpillar. This one tells us that the longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier, and more severe the winter will be.  Similarly, the wider the middle brown band is associated with a milder upcoming winter. (  The actual explanation is the better the growing season is, the bigger the caterpillar will grow.  This results in narrower red-orange bands in its middle.  Thus, the width of the banding is an indicator of the current or past season’s growth rather than an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter.

Predicting the weather and Nature’s response is another case of “no easy answers”.  There was frost in my vineyard on the 20th of May 2024.  The latest I remember previously was a frost on Mother’s Day years ago.  No.  I don’t know how many years ago.  Maybe my memory is failing but this year I am going to write it down and if I keep that up, some day I will be able to say: “Remember that frost 5/20/2024? The wild roses were blooming.”

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