If your impression is that we've had a mild winter and spring is creeping up on us earlier than usual, you're dead on.
If the unseasonably warm weather continues, we can expect all sorts of effects on our allergies, at our CSAs and at the green market.
Federal meteorologists said Wednesday that this past winter set a record for the United States' hottest ever, owing to the natural warming of Pacific Ocean water and man-made global warming.
In New York City, the average temperature for the period known as "meteorological winter" was the second hottest on record, National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Morrin told DNAinfo. The Jan. 23 blizzard dropped a whopping 27.2 inches of the area's total snowfall for the season, 31.2 inches.
Meanwhile, temperatures in the Northeast soared far above normal last week.
So just how does this "increasingly erratic, maddening, enervating weather" — as horticulturist Todd Forrest put it — impact the produce we eat, the pollen we inhale and the flowers we treasure?
We consulted a few experts on New York flora, and here's what we learned:
An early spring means high pollen counts.
Box elder maples, junipers and elm trees in the area (at a National Allergy Bureau counting station in Springfield, N.J.) are releasing high concentrations of allergy-triggering pollen early this year.
Record warmth at spring's onset is "particular troublesome for allergy sufferers," said Andy Mussolini, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. "At the early part of spring, that’s when we notice pollen counts can become highly concentrated in a short amount of time."
And above-normal temperatures are forecasted through May, Mussolini said. "That really allows tree pollen counts to explode."
You're going to see a lot of these vegetables at your local farmer's market or CSA box.
Zaid Kurdieh of Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, N.Y., which delivers vegetables to CSAs throughout the Bronx and Manhattan, laid out the scenario: “Let’s say in the middle of June, all of a sudden you have 90-degree weather for a week." Multiple "successions" of veggies like lettuce and summer squash, planted in weekly intervals, will all ripen at the same time.
"It messes up our weekly schedule for CSAs because then we may have one week when people get a ton of stuff, and then the next week, because of the acceleration, we have a gap.”
You can also expect to see more sweet potatoes, peppers and eggplants for sale and for pick up if the current weather trend progresses — those vegetables thrive in hot weather, Kurdieh said.
You can start urban foraging immediately.
Spring's first edible wild plants have already made a showing, reported Steven Brill, a naturalist who has led foraging expeditions through New York City parks for the last 34 years.
“Around the second week of February, the growing season started," said Brill, who was arrested in the mid-1980s for harvesting plants in Central Park against the city's rules but hasn't encountered such censure since.
"The weeds of all the root vegetables are up: wild carrots, wild parsnips, primrose, day lily. Field garlic is growing like crazy."
You can eat the shoots of the day lily, an Asian flower that blooms in late spring, raw, cooked, or pickled; you can eat the roots and the leaves of the primrose raw, he said.
But if a cold snap interrupts a warmer-than-average spring, flowering trees in early bloom could be in trouble.
"We’re still in the time of year when we can expect frost," a period that ends in May, said Todd Forrest, head of horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. "If we get a hard frost, much below 30 degrees for a few days, any time in the next few weeks, we’ll lose any flowers that started blooming. You can also lose early leaves."
That was the fate of the Japanese apricot buds that blossomed in the garden back in December and froze in January.
Now at risk are trees like winter jasmine, red maple, Japanese magnolia, the latter of which flowered a full month earlier than last year. A freeze wouldn't kill them, Forrest explained, but "it does make them depressingly ugly in a time of year that they’re supposed to be gorgeously beautiful," and less resistant to drought.
Upstate, a below-freezing cold front could stunt this year's fruit crop. Vegetable seeds can be replanted, but that's not the case for apple and peach trees.
This year, above-average temperatures have awaken trees from an abridged and incomplete dormancy nearly a month earlier than usual, according to Josh Morgenthau of Fishkill Farms, which delivers produce to farmers' markets in the city and a CSA in Brooklyn. That makes them more sensitive to the cold, and when more than half their flower buds freeze to death, the year's harvest goes with them.
"There are some growers who are probably a little nervous right now," Morgenthau said.
The briefness of this past winter puts all plants at a greater risk of injury by pests and disease.
"Without a significant chunk of cold weather, a lot of pests don’t get killed off because there’s not enough freeze time to kill off eggs and limit that population," said Paula Lukats, program director for Just Food, a nonprofit organization that works with upstate farms and New York City communities to launch CSAs.
An extended fall also means that insects like aphids, which can reproduce several times in one growing season, have more time to procreate, Forrest pointed out.
"We had three days of really cold weather, but we never had a snow cover on the ground, so a lot of diseases are going to crop up," said Kurdieh, the vegetable farmer.
He's concerned about the fungi that plague crops when the weather is hot and wet, and the mildew that afflicts plants when it's hot and dry.
”We’re working with Cornell to breed specific varieties that both taste good and tolerate as much as possible disease," he confided, "and we take climate change into consideration when we’re doing that.”