Climate Corner: Where have all the flowers gone?

Mar 2, 2024

Linda Eve Seth

What a lonely place it would be to have a world without a wildflower! — Roland R Kemler


Think about climate change. If you’ve been paying attention, you are likely picturing devastating floods, raging wildfires, melting glaciers, or parched earth. Few of us would think of the lovely, delicate wildflowers in nearby meadows as victims of climate change. But recent studies suggest the future of these pretty blooms may be dismal as a result of our warming planet.

For short-lived spring wildflowers (known as ephemerals), such as rue anemone, trillium, or Dutchman’s breeches, timing is everything. These fleeting plants grow in temperate forests around the world (West Virginia is home to a remarkable abundance of the delightful beauties.), leafing out and flowering early in spring before the trees above them leaf out and block the sunlight. Emerge too early, and it will still be winter; emerge too late, and it will be too shady under the forest canopy for the essential process of photosynthesis to take place.

Over their evolutionary history, these plants have figured out the best timing for their survival. But climate change is altering spring growing conditions, and in order to survive, plant life is changing along with it.

When scientists considered phenology — the timing of biological events — they found that trees in their studies were more sensitive to spring temperatures than wildflowers were, which has resulted in earlier tree leaf-out, reducing available light below in the understory, and making a less than ideal environment for spring ephemerals.

This pattern has been found to be common across three continents, North America, Asia, and Europe. Trees and wildflowers are active earlier now than in the past, especially in warm years and places. An analysis of over 400 plant species found that the average first flowering date from 1987 to present is a full month earlier than the average first flowering date from prior to 1986. That period coincides with accelerating global warming.

My personal experience and subsequent concerns arise from years of searching annually for spring ephemerals and recording the dates of my initial sightings of those beauties growing within 1/2 mile of my house in rural Ritchie County. Each year, from March through May, I find 80-85 different kinds of blooming wildflowers! Every year over the past decade, I have dutifully recorded the date I first noticed a species blooming. By reviewing my own charts, I see that in just that short period of time, most of the wildflowers in my corner of the world are blooming 2-4 weeks EARLIER than they did just 10 years ago. The greatest shifts have occurred in the past 4-5 years.

Although the sight of the first spring flowers is always special, this earlier flowering can have consequences for the ecosystems and agriculture. Other species (birds, bugs …) that synchronize their migration or hibernation can be left without the flowers and plants they rely on which can lead to biodiversity loss if populations cannot adapt quickly enough. Recent studies conducted in California have recorded a decline of wildflower species by 15% in 15 years.

The impact of climate change involves more than just losing the visual beauty of these wildflowers. As pollinator plants, wildflowers help to support declining bee populations as well as helping maintain a healthy population of other bugs which are paramount when growing fruits and vegetables; e.g. strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples, and nuts.

Wildflowers supply seeds, insects, and other food for wildlife. On croplands and in forests wildflowers also provide erosion control and aid the management and filtering of storm-water. Their root systems create a natural groundwater filtration system and reduce the impacts of drought.

A study completed in 2022, has found that climate change not only reduces the abundance of wildflowers but causes them to produce less nectar and fewer and lighter seeds. These changes also impact pollinating insects visiting the flowers; they have to visit more flowers, more frequently, in order to gather the required food.

Some researchers warn that wildflowers may be doomed to fade away in coming decades. Due to our warming climate, trees in North American forests are leafing out earlier and earlier each spring. For the wildflowers on the forest floor, searching for energy from the sun, all that extra shady foliage could end up causing a lot of harm.

Not even those delicate, picturesque wildflowers are safe from the effects of climate change.

Until next time, be kind to your Mother Earth.


Linda Eve Seth, SLP, M.Ed. is a mother, grandmother, concerned citizen and member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action