Slow Buds Bring Bright Blooms Everything's 2 Weeks Behind - Sales, Too. But Home Gardeners Are Emerging Slowly.

Posted: April 19, 1996

The lingering spring chill has been good for the lovely flowers, horticulturists say, but not very good for the lovely people who sell them.

Daffodils have been flowering more days than they would in warm weather.

Magnolias have not been seduced into flowering early and then killed by a sudden cold snap.

But the continuing chill is said to be making commercial flower growers think about selling used cars.

``Because the weather has been wet and cool,'' said Jack Rabin, ``people have not been out working in their gardens and . . . not going to their garden centers.

``And so, the farmers that raise ornamental plants are starting to pull out their hair.''

Rabin is assistant director of Rutgers University's agriculture experiment station in New Brunswick.

What gardeners are not buying, Rabin said, ``is everything from flowering bedding plants such as pansies . . . [to] rhododendrons and azaleas, the woody ornamentals.''

In South Jersey, he said, ``it's, like, a $50 million business.''

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, the nursery business is not quite as significant, but hurting no less.

``It's not fit to do anything'' in the garden, Clark Ott said yesterday.

Ott is an owner of Ott's Exotic Plants, a 45-acre nursery near Schwenksville in Montgomery County.

``The ground's too wet; it's too cold; it's too early to plant. Things are a little bit slow.''

The average daily temperature, measured at Philadelphia International Airport, was 3.7 degrees below normal in March and, by Wednesday, has been 2.6 degrees below normal this month.

But as Ott spoke yesterday, the season was threatening to become warm and wonderful.

``People are starting to wake up now, coming out of the winter thaw . . .,'' Ott said. When the weather comes to right, it'll be busy.''

* The daffodils that have looked so glorious for the last few weeks are hiding a dark little secret.

They are about two weeks late.

So were the purple species crocuses before them. So are the dark blue scylla, only now flowering.

This year, the late winter snow cover and the spring chill cheated us out of an early wake-up call.

What we lost was the knock-your-socks-off surprise of the first flowers blooming when we expect them, the color splash that whacks us out of winter-long grouchiness.

Now, they are here.

In glory.

Vicki Mattern, managing editor of Organic Gardening magazine, keeps a journal of when plants flower in her home garden near Allentown.

``It looks as though my daffodils and hyacinths are about two weeks later than they were last year,'' Mattern said.

But, she said, ``it looks like some of the later-blooming things are catching up and there's not quite [as much of] a difference.''

By the time May Day dawns, she suggested, things that should bloom in early May may well be blooming - oh, wow - in early May.

One of the terrific benefits of a cool spring like this one, Lisa Roper said, is that it allows the fragile buds of magnolia trees to flower well.

Roper is a horticulturist at Chanticleer, the 30-acre private estate in Radnor that is open to the public a few days a week.

``The best thing for magnolias is a long cool spring,'' Roper said.

In too many recent springs, she said, early warmings have tempted magnolias to flower just before cold snaps.

And on chill mornings after such a snap, magnolia owners have walked out to find flowers withered and brown, ``looking like wet paper bags.''

Not this year.

Magnolias - especially the most common variety, magnolia soulangiana, she said - are now beginning to flower, when freezing nights may be only unpleasant memories.

* The chill has ``definitely delayed [flowering] all up and down the East Coast,'' said Richard W. Lighty, director of the Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora at the du Pont estate known as Mount Cuba in Greenville, Del.

The chill, he said, has been especially unkind to the South.

The Carolinas ``lost a tremendous amount, lost their entire spring bloom'' in cherry and magnolia trees.

``It all got zapped,'' he said.

Just returned from a visit to the South, Lighty said he saw no such harm either in Greenville or at his home in Kennett Square.

Some years, he said, trillium grandiflorum - the great white trillium - would be almost coming into peak bloom.

``Now there are a few scattering plants, the blooms are just opening.''

As beautiful as ever?

Here in the Philadelphia region, he said, ``it's a much better spring than we anticipated.''

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