WHILE the US shivers amid a big freeze that has brought the coldest weather for decades, Scots could be forgiven for wondering when winter will arrive.

Despite the recent storms this winter has so far been marked by distinctly balmy conditions with the Met Office saying that December is officially the fifth warmest on record since 1910.

Gardens across Scotland have continued to bloom long past the time when frost should have dealt flowers a fatal blow while there has been little snow to speak of.

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Now another sign of the unusual winter weather has been spotted in the Highlands, where gardeners are puzzling over an apple tree that's still bearing fruit long after it should have become windfall.

But the tree's owner, Rebecca Hewitt, isn't tempted to try the fruit despite a healthy crop dangling just outside her window in her garden in the Ross-shire community of Cromarty.

She said: "It is nice to get a little reminder of summer just by wandering in my garden. However, I think I will just leave them to the birds as I am sure they will be very welcome at this time of year.

"There has been some surprise expressed by locals that I should still have so many on my apple tree in the depths of winter.

"We should have had lots of frost and snow by now and perhaps this has had something to do with them still being there.

"Even the gale force winds haven't shifted them."

Rebecca, 28, who studies harbour seals for Aberdeen University's Lighthouse Field Station, added: "The Cromarty Firth is famous for its bottlenose dolphins and maybe my tree-load of apples will become a phenomenon.

"They are a hardy lot and I have to admit I don't know what variety they are. The ones I had during the summer were very tasty indeed and I am looking forward to another crop next year."

Her crop of fruit is not the only sign that nature is confused by the odd weather patterns. Last month gardeners at the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh were marvelling at the number of flowers in bloom, while bulbs which normally only come to life in the spring are already breaking through the soil.

But while the warmer winter has had unexpected effects, forecasters say people should not get too used to the mild temperatures as cold weather is on the way.

Thermometers are likely to drop next week with a cold front moving in from the Atlantic, bringing frost, fog and even the occasional snow shower.

A spokeswoman for the Met Office said: "We are currently seeing temperatures way above what we would expect this year. Our records for December show an average temperature of 5.1ÚC, where it would normally be 2.3ÚC.

"There's no real reason for the warmer winter. It's just down to the way the jet stream has been functioning in the past few months.

"The Atlantic is also warmer than average and this means that air coming from the west has kept its heat.

"But we can expect things to change in the coming weeks. We will see temperatures much more in line with what we would normally expect for this time of year, and wintery showers, especially in Scotland."

She added: "This will come as a surprise to some people because we've all got used to the milder weather this year, so be prepared to wrap up warm and watch for ice on the ground.

"For the most part it will be quite clear, although there will still be some unsettled weather in the weeks ahead, which is normal for this time of year."