It’s time for the ‘little winters’ of spring

Published 11:16 am Friday, March 15, 2024

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After spring-like warmth last week, the weatherman says we are in for a change – daytime temperatures in the upper 40s Monday and Tuesday, and nighttime lows in the upper 20s – a big change in the weather from last Wednesday and Thursday when it was spring-like.

Could it be that we are having dogwood winter?

We never know what March will bring, but normally it begins to tease us with some warm springlike days, buds beginning to form and daffodils popping up everywhere. But just when we begin to have a bad case of Spring Fever, old man winter slaps us in the face a few more times! As you’re beginning to enjoy some warm sunny days, it is inevitable that more cold, rainy and maybe even snowy days are ahead! Needless to say, you’ll never be more confused than a southern thermostat in the spring!

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Before the days of modern weather forecasting, folks relied on folk wisdom to help them with planting crops and gardens. Predicting spring cold snaps, in particular, could make the difference between success and failure. If you planted too early, a cold snap could undo your hard work. But waiting too long could mean not having a long enough time to grow before the first freeze.

Here in East Tennessee, this seasonal lore is still used today and passed down from generation to generation. Several predictable cold snaps happen around the same time each spring and old-timers gave them each a name. All but two of these are named for the trees that are blooming at the time. Depending on how the calendar falls, one of these cold snaps can occur at the same time as Easter. If this happens, we know to have our winter coats ready for Easter church services and egg hunts. Some old folks call the Easter cold “Easter Squalls.”

Spring can be an unpredictable time of year, with warm, summer-like conditions one day and snow the next. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that the weather will remain hospitable when – WHAM! – a freak cold snap hits and reminds you that winter only ended a few weeks ago. 

Though predictable, the climb from the cold of winter to the warmth of summer and back again is not completely smooth. Small “blips” in the overall pattern reveal noticeable fluctuations that can be observed from year to year. These blips are called singularities in weather lingo. For a singularity to be recognized, it has to occur during at least 50% of years. Badger Summer is a long-established singularity. Dogwood Winter is another. And, of course there is Redbud Winter, usually the first little winter which occurs when the Redbud trees bloom, before the dogwoods.

But why is it called Dogwood Winter, or any of those other names, for that matter? Today, we keep track of the passing of the year with a calendar. If you want to know when the last frost of the year is likely to be, you can simply look up the date in your Farmers’ Almanac. Our ancestors, though, didn’t have calendars to consult. Instead, they relied on the signs of nature around them.

A Dogwood Winter usually falls during April or early May, right around the time the dogwood trees start blooming in many regions. However, it can come earlier, such as this year. Farmers knew it wasn’t safe to plant their crops until after the dogwoods bloomed.

Like the dogwoods, it takes a few days of cold weather to stimulate blackberry canes to start growing, which is why Blackberry Winter is another popular term for this weather phenomenon. Locust trees, redbud trees, dogwood trees – all are seen as harbingers of a spring cold spell. Which name you choose depends on which kind of tree is most abundant in your neck of the woods.

There are two more “little winters” that are perhaps lesser known these days. These occur in mid to late May, are milder than the previous cold snaps and are not named for the trees that are in bloom. Linsey-Woolsey Britches Winter was once a popular term, back when winter clothing was homespun of linen/wool, and winters were harsher. It was the last time in spring that you’d need “long johns” before trading them in for summer clothing. Whippoorwill Winter is the last of the cool weather. Around this time of year, you can hear the song of the whippoorwills in the evenings and early mornings. This is a sure sign that those long summer days of sipping a cold iced tea on the porch are just around the corner!

Just hang in there, and don’t pack away the winter coat just yet…spring is sure to come and stay, but we could still have a “little” winter.