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Don’t blame hot weather for burning up plants

“Weather is a force we have lost touch with. We feel entitled to dominate it, like everything else in the environment, and when we can’t are more panic-stricken than primitives who know that when nature is out of control, they can only pray to the gods.”

— Eleanor Perenyi, “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden,” 1981

Eleanor Perenyi had little sympathy for Americans who, she wrote, “resent the vagaries of weather (to an extent) unknown to other people.” (I should note that Perenyi was a native of Washington, D.C., who, after spending a few years in Europe, spent most of her adult life living and gardening in Connecticut.)

Her criticisms were, in part, based on observations that Americans tend to over-rely on weather forecasters, whom she portrayed as “grinning young men in sports jackets.” In addition to often being incorrect, weather forecasters on the evening news, according to Perenyi, were “more accurately described as pandering to infantilism” by assuming their viewers were always on vacation, their only interest in the weather to determine its suitability to play outdoors.

Things have changed in the 40 years since the publication of “Green Thoughts,” not the least of which is that most people get weather data from their smartphone rather than their television. Also, weather forecasters on TV news are called “meteorologists” now, and they are just as likely to wear dresses as sport coats.

As the name implies, meteorologists are much more scientific and serious. In fact, joking about the weather largely has been replaced by fearmongering reports of disastrous heatwaves, flooding, hurricanes and snowstorms.

I checked on the accuracy of today’s weather forecasts and learned they have improved since Perenyi’s time. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, five-day weather predictions are accurate 90% of the time (although 10-day forecasts are accurate only about 50% of the time).

Still, I agree with Perenyi’s opinion that most people have lost touch with the force of weather, only considering in the short term how it embellishes or disrupts human lives and recreation. Never mind that as the human population increases, we often build our homes and office buildings and grow our food in places that historical weather patterns show are not conducive to these activities.

Never mind that we continue to pump 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels, even though scientists and policymakers have known since the 1970s that doing so will heat up our planet. (In fact, the first report to make the connection between atmospheric CO2 and global warming was published in 1896 by a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius.)

As for gardeners (American and otherwise), we still tend to overlook our collective actions that affect the weather, focusing instead on how the weather affects us and our plants. Never mind that most of our plants are native to other places and are not acclimated to our hot, dry summers, which are becoming hotter and drier as scientists have predicted for many years.

Am I distressed that my winter heath (Erica carnea), a native of European mountainsides, and my Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) are succumbing to the extended heat? Absolutely.

Should I be surprised and blame it on the “unusual” weather — or the gods? Absolutely not, even though it might make me feel better to relinquish responsibility for making those planting decisions — and all the other decisions I’ve made that have contributed to global warming.

The typical human reaction to heat-stressed plants is to provide more shade and water for them, and it’s true that this is usually an effective short-term remedy. However, water resources for landscaping and gardening literally are drying up, so a more practical strategy, albeit a painful one, is to replace heat-induced casualties with more heat-resistant plants. Native plants are a good place to start because they’ve been evolving with the local climate for millennia; nonnative xeric plants are climate-smart choices, as well.

Here are some sobering statistics: In 1951, there were 23 days from June through September when temperatures were 95 degrees F or hotter and zero days when the temperature rose to 100-plus degrees. In 2021, there were 49 days from June through September when temperatures were 95 degrees or hotter and 19 days with temperatures 100-plus degrees. It doesn’t take a weather forecaster — I mean meteorologist — to predict more of the same warming trend in the decades to come.

As of this year, water restrictions have been implemented in Texas, California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, New Jersey and New Hampshire. It’s not a matter of if, but when, water restrictions will take place in Oregon, too.

Gardeners can either prepare for this by eliminating their lawns and reducing the number of plants in their gardens that need a lot of water. Or they can ignore the reality of global warming and continue gardening as usual until they are forced to make changes.

Perenyi made the uncomfortable judgment that humans are no longer physically or psychologically equipped to handle bad weather. She might have been right. Despite the fact that the world has grown increasingly complex, the human brain has neither grown in size nor developed more complex interneural connections.

Scientists report that human brains are no more efficient than other mammalian brains. We might be altering the world at a faster pace than our brains can keep up.

Cognitive psychologists tell us the human brain has not evolved to perceive reality; instead, it has evolved to create an illusion of reality. Maybe that’s why we continue to blame the hot weather, or vengeful gods, for burning up our plants.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. See literarygardener.com or email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.