Have you noticed a lot of birds singing or trees blooming? I think Spring has sprung – and it’s happening a little early. Unseasonably high temperatures have caused pollen to emerge from elm trees, flowers from spicebush and a cloud of pink flowers from red maples, ushering the unusually early arrival of spring in our area and reflecting a phenomenon happening across the eastern United States.
Trees and many other plants are developing flowers, while grasses are growing two to three weeks earlier than usual, raising the specter of a long and intense allergy season and concerns about what could happen to fruit crops — both in the forest and the orchard — if the budding fruit has to face a typical late spring frost. “This warm weather might be really pleasant and some people might find it comforting,” said Dr. Donald J. Leopold, chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, N.Y. “But when the weather is really altered from typical conditions, there are always winners and losers among all types of both plants and animals. With the many plant and animal species in the East, some will benefit and some will be adversely impacted with these unusually warm conditions.”
Leopold studies woody and herbaceous native and non-native plants; in his 27 years at ESF, he has never seen these species bloom on the campus before April 1. The consequences of this early blooming depend on the weather during the next month or so. Temperatures in the low 20s and lower can damage any developing fruit, such as the winged fruits of the silver maple, which are eaten by wildlife. More economically serious would be for apples and other fruit trees to bloom in mid- to late April then be subjected to a killing frost. Allergy season may also come early. The arrival of early spring is not good news for allergy sufferers. Maples, willows, aspens, poplars, and other early spring blooming woody species are major contributors of wind-dispersed pollen that causes allergic reactions so allergy sufferers are likely to notice an early and prolonged allergy season. A quick tour around our area I have seen American elms already producing pollen, spicebush sporting flowers of various sizes, and maples covered with male and female flowers. A dogwood known as a Cornelian cherry, which produces fruit that various species of wildlife feed on, was past its blooming peak. If you travel along Rt. 78, this shrub is planted along the median in several places.
Elsewhere in the region, the silver maples peaked the week of March 12, weeks ahead of their average bloom time; some saucer magnolias are starting to open weeks ahead of their earliest bloom times. I routinely collects twigs over spring break to use when I teach students identification techniques during biology and environmental science courses and I have never seen the buds as swollen as they are this year.
As for the birds of our area, they are just as confused as the plants! In my morning walks I have heard cardinals and cowbirds in full song. Not just the early spring sounds that they make, but the complete song. Cowbirds are insect eaters and if we have some bad frosts this food source may be lost, leaving he cowbirds to starve. Bird song is closely related to nesting and egg laying. Any early egg laying and hatching could be devastating if we get cold, damp weather.
If you are reading this in Mid April or May, the damage may already be done. If you find that your plants are suffering or have brown leaves and flowers, have your Arborist check for frost or cold weather injury and treat accordingly