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Questions of the deep midwinter

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Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

Why is my Christmas tree beginning to grow? Do dead Christmas trees grow shoots?
I’ve been a County Extension horticulturist for 26 years and this is the first year I have received such an inquiry. I’ve since received several regarding Christmas trees producing new growth.
It might seem like a miracle when your Christmas tree breaks bud and begins to grow while on display in the home. To understand what is going on, we need to talk about how conifers – yes, your Christmas tree is just a young conifer – develop and survive the winter.
Each year, Christmas trees enter a period of dormancy in the fall. This process helps them survive winter until spring, when they come out of dormancy and resume their growth.
The two most critical environmental factors that trigger the dormancy process are shorter day lengths and lowering temperatures. This dormancy, or chilling period, is needed before normal growth resumes in the spring.

Gardening Christmas tree budding outWhen dormant Christmas trees are placed in a warm, favorable environment such as a living room, they can and sometimes do begin to grow, almost as if it’s springtime. Photo Camille Goodwin

As a general rule, most conifers need to accumulate at least six to 10 weeks of exposure to temperatures below 40°F in order to meet their chilling requirement to overcome their dormancy when spring arrives. The chilling requirement is an evolutionary adaptation that protects trees from starting to grow whenever they experience a brief warm-up during the winter.
Some tree species require a relatively short chilling period to overcome dormancy. If we have a cold fall and early winter, trees may accumulate enough chilling hours to satisfy their dormancy requirement before they are harvested from the field or during shipping and display at a retail lot.
Once its chilling hours are met, the only thing keeping a Christmas tree from growing is continued exposure to cool temperatures. Once it is placed in a warm, favorable environment it can begin to grow as if it’s springtime. This can seem like a miracle but it is just the miracle of nature.

My two-year-old peach tree produced a full flush of flowers at Thanksgiving and the peaches had grown to half an inch in diameter by Christmas. What went wrong?
Peaches on a tree during the Christmas holiday might be seen as another miracle. The answer is that the peach tree was “confused” as to what time of the year it was.
Plants do not have the benefit of checking a 12-month calendar as humans do, seeing that the winter is just getting under way and realizing that now is not a good time to be blooming.
They must rely on other indicators, including their internal clocks, to tell them what season it is and what they should be doing, or not doing. This normally works exceedingly well in most seasons and under most conditions.
Generally, plants that flower out of season are under some type of stress. Extended periods of drought during summer followed by ample rains – especially if accompanied by lower temperatures – form the most common source of stress in our growing area.
This chain of events this year was enough to confuse some plants into “thinking” it was spring and thus it must be time to bloom. I recommend removing the peaches that have set.
A related question I received on this topic was: “Will these plants bloom again next spring?”  Peach trees typically produce an overabundance of flowers during the spring blooming period. At the very least, your peach tree should flower again in spring and may produce a normal crop load if provided good care in the form of proper fertilization and irrigation.

My neighborhood was recently overwhelmed with mounds of a white, sticky material falling from the sky. I need help with identifying what the material is and what produced it. I am not crazy!
I receive a variety of novel inquiries but this one garnered my interest as I knew it would not be an ordinary or routine matter to resolve. The caller resides in Dickinson and first contacted the county’s environmental health services office, which in turn contacted me.
The resident submitted samples of the material that had landed on tree limbs at her home and on nearby electrical lines and pole transformers. She said her neighbors were also concerned about the matter as it involved several other homes.
I contacted Mike Merchant, a professor of entomology and an Extension urban entomologist with Texas A&M. He identified the mystery material as globs of webbing amassed from individual strands of spider webs.
Spider experts – known as arachnologists – describe this phenomenon as ballooning silk. While certainly an uncommon event, it’s not unprecedented. Similar events were reported this year in the Fort Worth area by a local television station.
The webbing was produced by spiders as an aerial dispersal technique called ballooning, which involves baby spiders climbing to the top of a structure such as a fence post or leaf blade, raising their abdomens and then releasing strands of silk for the wind to float them to new locations.
While ballooning can occur on a limited scale at any given time, mass ballooning involving thousands and even millions of spiders, like the reported event, is rare. The homeowner was not “crazy”, just observant and concerned.
I thought it to be a moment of happenstance when a single spider, floating, or ballooning, on a thin line of webbing, landed on the windshield of my car as I was leaving the office the day before Christmas Eve. Perhaps this too was a miracle of sorts after all.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/galveston/index.htm.

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