1. Many studies have documented advancement in spring plant phenology; however, studies in dry climates, where water, rather than temperature, is the limiting factor, are rare. To better understand how plants of a water-limited environment may respond to predicted changes in climate, we used a species-rich 20-year data set collected in a semi-arid ecosystem to determine species’ relationships with precipitation and temperature for seasons coincident with and previous to flowering. Our data were collected across a 1200-m elevation gradient, allowing us to explore the consistency in relationships with climatic variables from desert scrub to pine forest. A second objective was to document evidence of changes in the onset of spring flowering over this 20-year period.
2. Onset of spring flowering for species at the lowest elevations was most commonly driven by temperature and precipitation conditions of the previous autumn. In contrast, onset of spring flowering for species in high-elevation communities was more often associated with spring temperatures, a pattern consistent with communities of higher latitudes. Despite these coarse patterns, species’ relationships to climate variables were highly variable and individualistic.
3. Approximately 10% of species showed a significant trend in changes in first flowering date over the period 1984–2003; most trends were in the direction of later onset. The decrease in autumn precipitation observed over the study period appears to explain the delay in onset observed for many of the species across the elevation gradient. Other species’ delays in spring flowering appear to be related to the slight decrease in spring temperature observed over the study period.
4. Synthesis. The south-western USA is expected to become warmer and drier. Climate relationships documented in this study suggest divergent, individualistic changes in the onset of spring flowering. Low-elevation plants may exhibit delayed spring flowering due to changes in the timing or amount of precipitation or insufficient chilling. High-elevation species may show advancement in spring flowering due to warming temperatures. The highly individualistic responses to climate change may result in significant changes in the diversity, composition and abundance of plants in flower. Variable changes in phenology such as these have major implications for species population dynamics and ecosystem functioning.