Lets take a break from all this talk about the cold.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself outdoors, in your shirtsleeves, on a warm, sunny,
windless January day. Most cold regions experience at least one, if not more, warm
spellsor "January thaws"during each winter. We humans come out of
our "hibernation" to enjoy the sunshine, so why dont our plants break
dormancy and start growing?
Suppose a tree were to
break dormancy during a January thaw. The new, delicate growth would quickly succumb to
the next cold spell. How do plants know when its really springand its
safe to begin growing?
Plants have evolved strategies to keep from being
"fooled" into thinking its spring, before it really is. Many plants native
to temperate regions have specific chilling
requirements. A plants chilling requirement is the number of hours the plant
must be exposed to temperatures between 32ºF and 45ºF before the plant breaks dormancy.
(Times when the temperature drops below 32ºF or rises above 45ºF dont count toward
the chilling requirement.) Chilling requirements are generally measured in hours;
incredibly, plants are somehow able to keep track of the number of hours they are exposed
to this very specific range of temperature.
While gardeners in the north worry more about cold
hardiness when choosing plants, those in warm regions must also understand chilling
requirements. Northern Florida usually gets between 400 and 600 hours of chilling, while
Nashville gets close to 1200. Companies specializing in fruit trees for warm regions will
list each plants chilling requirementits wise to research your
areas average number of chill hours, and try to match the two. Areas north of
Tennessee usually get more than enough chilling for most plants!
And in warm regions that dont experience adequate
winter chilling, if you want to enjoy spring-flowering bulbs like tulips and daffodils,
youll need to dig them up at the end of the growing season and artificially provide
them with the necessary chilling. Make room in your refrigerator, and keep the bulbs away
from ripening fruit (which can stimulate growth and damage the bulbs).
Weve been focusing on plant adaptations for enduring
cold weather. But plants native to regions that experience hot, dry weather have their own
adaptations for enduring those challenging conditions. Some desert plants actually enter
dormancy during the summer months to avoid the damaging heat, and do their growing and
reproducing during the cooler winter months.
And, finally, no discussion of dormancy would be complete
without at least touching on that most incredible of adaptations, the seed. With their
hard seed coats protecting the delicate plant embryos within, seeds are miracles of
evolution. Many seeds are able to endure long periods of drought, heat, or freezing
temperaturesyet are ready to spring to life when favorable conditions arise.
Depending on the adaptations theyve made to their native environments, different
plants seeds may need darkness, light, warmth, chilling, or even exposure to fire
before theyll germinate!
Many spring- flowering bulbs, including tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, require
several weeks of chilling before theyll begin growing. If you are trying to
"force" bulbs to flower indoors, be sure to research and meet the bulbs
chilling requirements. Some nurseries sell pre-chilled bulbs especially for forcing.
Similarly, pussy willow, forsythia, and fruit tree branches brought indoors in
the fall wont sprout and flower. But the same branches brought indoors in early
spring will provide a wonderful displaybecause their chilling requirements have been