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Bounty of early blooms, fruit growers' crops could succumb to upcoming frost

| Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday night's forecasted freeze could strip most of the color from flowers and trees that have bloomed weeks ahead of schedule.

"I have my fingers crossed," said Nancy Knauss, horticulture educator at the Penn State Cooperative Extension of Allegheny County. "If we do get a frost, (blooms) will be damaged, and that's not a good thing."

Fred McMullen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon, said there's a significant chance of a "high-impact freeze" Monday night into Tuesday morning, with lows in the mid-20s.

"It's been such an anomalous March," McMullen said. Highs in March have climbed 30 degrees above normal at times, he said. "The normal growing season doesn't even start until May 1, so there are impacts there."

For Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park, that means farm manager Adam Voll and other employees may drive among the pear and apple trees in the orchards tonight, using large fans in the back of pickup trucks to kick up the air so frost does not settle on the blooming trees.

"We'll try to do something," said Voll, 29. "It's mostly out of our control, but at least it makes you feel like you're helping."

With the warm weather, Western Pennsylvania finds itself immersed in an explosion of color from flowers and trees blooming weeks ahead of schedule. Local agriculturists said a freeze Monday night would literally take the bloom off the rose.

"I feel sick," said Joan Griffith, 82, of Shaler, who has hundreds of flowers in bloom at her home. "I was afraid this could happen."

Griffith said she has a "whole box full of cloth" and hoped to use it to protect at least some of her flowers.

Knauss said cloth is much better than plastic for cover, as moisture condenses under plastic and then freezes, damaging plants.

She said those who have flowers in full bloom might be able to save the ones they treasure the most.

"There are so many out, it's impossible to cover them all," Knauss said. "You have to see what you think your most precious plant is."

Leaves on trees likely will be damaged, but they will recover, she said. Also, perennials and other blooming plants might lose their blooms, but the foliage of the plant will recover.

"In the city, you can see more things are out," Knauss said. "For the perennials that are out, they're 6 or 8 inches tall. The new growth is tender, and it hasn't had a chance to harden up yet."

Voll said he's most concerned about the apple and peach trees at the orchard that are in bloom.

"That shouldn't be happening for another three or four weeks," Voll said. "If it gets cold enough, it could kill the blossoms and ruin the crops for the whole year."

Strawberries are about a month ahead of their normal growth schedule, meaning they'll be in stores earlier this year, he said. But they should not be affected by the weather because they have not blossomed yet, he said.

Voll said family members have run the orchard for decades, and "nobody can remember a bloom this early." He added that frost or freezes at this time of year usually don't affect agriculture because nothing is in bloom.

Peaches draw customers to McConnell's Farms in Independence, Beaver County, said co-owner Calvin McConnell, and Monday night's forecast is frightening. Many of the farm's 4,000 peach trees are in bloom.

"I don't want to jinx anything, but if that happens, we're sunk for the year."

The lack of a peach crop would cause sales of other produce to suffer as well.

"The last thing I need is this," McConnell said.

McMullen said Monday night's temperatures may not drop to plant-damaging levels if skies are cloudy.

After Tuesday, temperatures should return to a less-threatening level, with highs near 60 and lows in the mid- to upper 30s, he said. The next chance of frost will be April 1, McMullen said.

Normal highs in late March and early April are in the lower 50s, and normal lows are in the upper 30s or lower 40s.

The unusually warm weather also has sent the region's pollen count soaring.

The early wake-up call for plants and animals can have disastrous health consequences, especially for children, said Dr. Aaron Bernstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.

Pollen counts are breaking records across the United States, Bernstein said, noting that allergies cost the U.S. economy from $6 billion to $12 billion annually in lost productivity.

The early heat stimulates growth in plants, and the pollen season has gotten longer by one to two weeks during the past half-century. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air stimulate pollen production in highly allergenic plants like ragweed, Bernstein said.

The rates of sensitization to pollen in the United States are also on the rise, he said, which means people who never have suffered from pollen-related allergies may do so now.

"As we juice these plants with carbon dioxide, we're going to make people have greater allergy symptoms," Bernstein said.

Heidi Cullen of the nonprofit science and communication organization Climate Control called the recent warmth "unprecedented," with more than 7,000 high temperature records set or tied in the continental United States since March 12.

"It's hard to grasp how massive and significant this is," Cullen said.

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