What Saskatoons, Elms and Ashes Can Teach Us About Global Warming

The buds of saskatoons opened on February 1 this year. We can expect the cold to keep them in this expectant state for many weeks yet. Look at the tiny blossoms touching the air without their shell below.

This opening a crack to the sky is the second step in a series which brings spring flowers. The first was the cold in October. The opening this month has sent hormones to the roots, which will initiate root growth. That growth is necessary to support the buds when they need a push of water to open them into the sun and begin their flow along channels of water tension into the light. Chinese elms have also started this process. They are a couple days ahead. They always are.

The process balances the climates of soil and air (separated by a layer of snow), which the trees bridge. Roots grow in cooler climates, which means that to them the soil is effectively warm right now (relatively speaking), although not warm enough for rapid growth. Because their growth at this time is slow, they need time. That’s what the buds are signalling now: not today’s need, but a future one. And so, very slowly, the tree begins. It is the same for the mountain ash, below, which also began this process today. Look at those fat buds at the end of the twigs. They are only slightly behind.

Very slowly, the roots will build up pressure in the trees now, which the sun will draw out many weeks in the future, maybe as late as early April. Now, the trees are awake, and feeling their way back into growth.  Note the dead leaves on this mountain ash, the result of the early frost which set the tree’s dormant clock early, and prepared for today’s swelling before the winter even began. No tree can predict the coming weather, but every tree can create opportunity by bridging two atmospheres, and transferring cold from one to the other with chemical and physical signals.


The bud opens, just slightly, to initiate the roots, which then slowly amass capacity, so that when the true spring sun comes growth will be sudden. It is, actually, not sudden. It entails a long period of readiness, which adjusts for the unpredictability of spring conditions. These effects vary greatly among individuals of each species, in accordance to genetic range and individual soil conditions. That range of variability in interpretation of heat and cold gives the trees another edge on the climate, and allows for the resilience that will accommodate swings in climate timing. Of course, variable times of blossoming and ripening will follow, with their own risks. Look how the saskatoon individual below is some days behind the one I showed you above. Her buds have swollen but have not yet kicked off any shells. She met spring quite poorly last year, yet this year she seems set up to take a little more prolonged cold than the first individual I showed you. Not every tree needs fruit every year for the species to thrive, but it would be best if the years with fruit were also the ones with water. Last year, no fruit, and no water by July. Could it be a pattern? Will the summer be wetter this year? Well, it’s hard to imagine it being any drier.


The sum total of this complex system of flow patterns makes up a species. There is much talk about global warming today, and its potential negative effects on our grasslands, forests and crops. Those effects might be fully within an acceptable range. What might matter more is timing: can we ensure that these trees, and others, have water at the correct times to correspond with their entrance into winter and their exit from it? Perhaps global warming is a distraction in this environment. Perhaps the story really is about water, and how it flows through these elegant systems, modulating whatever heat and cold there is. If so, it might be that it’s not necessary to reduce carbon emissions to reduce an impact on the atmosphere alone, but also necessary because by reducing it we can free up the economic, social and environmental space to allow delivery of water through natural systems, which can mitigate, or perhaps even annul, atmospheric effects. These are just questions, but if I’m right, two things: there is, really, something we can do; and right now we are not doing it. All of the technical, agricultural development in the world, and any form of technological expansion, either in machine development or energy capture, won’t address this problem unless that development is harnessed to water and its needs.

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