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Hearts wither for B.C. gardeners digging out from devastating cold snap

January plunge on top of other severe climate fluctuations wreaks havoc on growers

If you ask the “King of Succulents” Johnny Tai how his plants are doing, do it gently.

The 80-year-old Richmond, B.C., gardener hasn’t recovered yet from what he calls the “crime scene” he found in two greenhouses one morning in mid-January — thousands of dead and dying plants, thanks to a sudden cold snap and snowfall.

“I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s so sad,” said Tai, whose backyard collection of 10,000 succulents is open to the public, attracting hundreds of visitors each year and earning him his regal nickname in Chinese media.

Across British Columbia’s south coast, gardeners are finding dead or damaged plants due to the cold snap that sent temperatures plunging to -13.7 C in Richmond. As spring nears, hydrangeas are bare of buds and evergreens are losing their foliage.

Andrew Fleming, superintendent for VanDusen Botanical Garden and the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver, said plants were pushed to the brink by year-on-year drought and cold, wet winters — before the “tipping point” of the cold snap.

Tai and his wife Sonia, said in interviews in Mandarin and English that they lost 2,000 plants that night in January.

“I have been growing succulents for about 30 years in Canada and it was the first time losing so many of them,” said Johnny Tai.

“The succulent seeds I have are from South Africa and they aren’t used to low temperatures. They can only sustain -5 degrees, but that night the temperature dropped to -11 and apparently, they couldn’t handle that,” said Tai.

Tai used tweezers to show the rotten roots of some of the dead plants, their leaves mushy or withered. He plans to replant in April.

In nearby Paulik Park, Richmond Garden Club president Lynda Pasacreta pointed to a mahonia where hummingbirds had been coming to feed in December and early January.

Now it is a naked stick, thanks to the deep freeze.

“This is very, very sad and you can see on the ground all that has been lost,” said Pasacreta, pointing to the dead yellow leaves. “I am sure the hummingbirds are pretty upset.”

The park’s master gardener Jill Wright says the hydrangeas at the park are struggling, with no growing buds.

“They are dead … we won’t get any flowers on this plant this year and it’s so sad because this just adds so much colour to the garden,” said Wright.

Fleming said VanDusen Botanical Garden and the Bloedel Conservatory are also seeing the effects of recent weather events.

Some evergreens have dropped their leaves, a result of a combination of stresses rather than a single event, he said.

“We did have a pretty significant cold snap a bit later than we usually do this year and a lot of plants had kind of decided it was spring and were sort of waking up and had some tender growth on them, and the cold temperatures had a pretty drastic effect on that plant material,” he said.

“It’s not this one cold event that has caused it. It’s these long, dry summers followed by cold, wet winters and then a kind of unique event like the cold snap that we had ends up being the tipping point where we see a lot of damage in plants.”

Older plants that had made it through a series of tough seasons were more vulnerable than young plants, he said.

“Their energy reserves are depleted during every one of those stressful events, whether it’s the drought in the summertime or the extreme cold in the winter,” he said.

“So, when you do see plants in distress, try not to focus it on one event and try to imagine the bigger picture and kind of these incremental losses towards the overall health of the plants.”

Douglas Justice, associate director of the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Garden, said extreme weather events were getting more common, leaving plants with little room for adaptation.

“We had three or four drought years in a row, some very long summer droughts, and we have had three winters with significantly cold weather and this last cold snap was particularly bad,” he said.

“But the problem was that the cold followed a period of warmth … and I think that plants are just stressed, not able to tolerate all these kinds of rapid changes,” said Justice.

His advice for gardeners is to be “conservative” — don’t plant too early and plan for the worst by having covers for plants and vegetables ready.

Justice said he learned from personal experience, growing parsley through the extreme heat of last year followed by the cold snap that killed it all.

“I didn’t cover it because I didn’t think that it would be damaged. Now I know — we all make mistakes,” said Justice.

Wright said gardeners at Paulik Park will be more thoughtful about what they plant, including whether new plants can sustain big swings in temperature.

“We’ve never protected any plants in Paulik, but we are now going to have to start, so if we know there is going to be a severe change with an arctic flow coming down, we are going to have to start covering,”

Sonia Tai said her husband Johnny was still in grief over the death of so many prized succulents. To cope, he’s been spending more time meeting with his gardening friends for dim-sum.

She said they are still hopeful that the garden can be brought back to its former glory.

“Sometimes gardening is like life,” she said. “You might lose everything and then you restart it all over again.”

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