More photos: New York Botanic Garden Flickr

With temperatures barely dipping below freezing and a near non-existent snowfall, New York City, along with most of the country, has been experiencing one of the warmest winters on record. Just last week, temperatures neared 60, and throughout the city, early signs of spring — buds on trees, crocuses in full bloom — are popping up. Flowers and warm weather are certainly nicer than piles of snow and slush, but what does this mean for the health of our gardens and farms? Horticulturists at the city’s botanical gardens, as well as farmers in the Hudson Valley, are concerned about harsh frosts and possible snowfall, which can end a plant’s bloom for the season, or worse, throw off its life cycle and pollination.

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In the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, the horticulturists have planted an experimental plot that they call the global warming garden. As of last week, the Japanese camellias, which typically bloom in early spring, were showing their lovely pink flowers, yellow Adonis amurensis popped up from the ground, and honeybees — a rarity before late March — were buzzing about the Dawn viburnum. Todd Forrest, the garden’s vice president for horticulture and living collections, told the New York Times that this is earliest he has even seen these things in flower.

“if there is a cold snap, plants and trees are vulnerable to damaged blossoms and, potentially, a falloff in seed production,” writes the Times. “With the ground still soft in many places and no snow cover, squirrels — already suffering from the acorn shortage last fall — have been digging up bulbs. Populations of insect pests, normally kept in check by freezing temperatures, are expected to grow this year.”

An orchard farmer in the Hudson Valley is even more concerned than the horticulturists in the city. The buds on Rod Dressel Sr.’s apple trees are already starting to swell, and if the trees blossom too early, a freeze would kill the flowers — and the promise of apples this fall. After a harsh and wet summer last year with Hurricane Irene, many farmers are still struggling to recover. Any additional losses would be a huge blow.

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A serious concern for all growers is pollination. When plants bloom early and become off schedule, their life cycles often don’t coincide with the lifecycle of their pollinators, like honeybees. If pollination doesn’t occur, then there will be no fruit production.

Meteorologists and experts agree that what distinguishes this winter is the consistency of the mildness. Last month, the federal Agriculture Department released an updated map showing plant hardiness zones that categorizes areas by temperature, and New York moved up a spot into a warmer zone. This was the map’s first update since 1990. A professor at Cornell said that the temperatures we’re seeing, even within the context of climate change, represent an extreme that’s likely to become less rare.

The Bronx’s blooming global warming garden may be a glimpse into the future. “This is not normal,” Forrest told the Times. “If this becomes the new normal, then we have to change the way we think about the plants we use and how we protect them.”

+ New York Botanical Garden

Via The New York Times