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Warm Weather Fools Flowers

The blossoms around her nursery — the honeysuckles and swamp jasmines and daffodils — make Elizabeth Dean want to yell at the flowers: "What are you doing? You should be asleep!"

Weeks of calendar-defying warm weather are confusing plants around much of the country, worrying horticulturists and dotting gardens with unusual December bursts of color.

Roses are sending out shoots. On golf courses and other places, azaleas, the pink and red blossoms usually associated with the onset of spring, are in bloom.

As beautiful as the phenomenon may be, it will mean a less colorful spring in many parts of the country. It will also mean less fruit such as peaches, cherries and strawberries, and lower-quality fruit, too.

At Wilkerson Mill Gardens outside Atlanta, Dean and her husband are usually packing up the nursery this time of year, waiting out the winter.

Not this year. Highs in the 70s have been the norm in December over much of the East, and temperatures are just now starting to cool to something a little more like late fall.

"It's pretty weird," Dean says. "It's been absolutely beautiful, so it's difficult to complain about. But we'd like it to get cold so we can kind of put it to bed and get about our business."

Across the country, 10 percent to 40 percent of flowers that were not supposed to bloom until spring are flourishing this month, says Gary Couvillon, a University of Georgia horticulture professor.

The flowers are boosting business at a usually slow time for botanical gardens and nurseries.

The trouble, horticulture experts say, is that the December bloom may leave plants weak and vulnerable to hard freezes that should come in the next several weeks. The cold will destroy the flowers and the buds.

Because of the early blossoming, "the bloom just will not be as heavy next spring," Couvillon says. And in the case of fruit trees and berry plants, that means there will be less fruit in the spring, he said.

In Georgia, the warm weather has caused peaches to fall behind on "chill time" — the cold period that the important crop needs for sweetness. But growers say they are not panicking yet.

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where attendance usually slows around the holidays, families are coming in to see the daffodils and hydrangeas.

"There's really nothing you can do," says Mildred Pinnell, a horticulturist at the garden. "It's one of the challenges of gardening. The weather never does read the books."

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