Crazy Weather Threatens to Sour this Year's Fruit Harvest

Odd seasonal temperatures have left more than meteorologists confused. It’s also wreaked havoc on plant life around the country.

When temperatures are out of whack then the process that allow plants to recover from the winter season is thrown off. Robert Black from Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Maryland has been monitoring the progress of trees on the orchard’s land, and a few weeks ago he started to show worry.

“I am concerned about an early white peach (tree on our property) from California called Snow Angel,” he said.

According to a story out of Frederick, MD, his concerns are well founded. The constant shifts in weather are becoming more and more likely to have affected the dormancy of trees and other plant life across the country.

Dormancy, the exercise of a tree losing it’s leaves for the fall and preparing for winter, is usually triggered by shorter days and cooler temperatures. When these things both happen, a chain reaction begins that allows a tree’s leaves to fall, and move water and sugars into the root system to help keep them strong. The sugars help promote healthy root growth and the water allows the plants to survive during dry periods of the season.

As the seasons change again, a tree exits dormancy due to a combination of hormones and enzymes within it. The process varies based on factors like tree species, geography and sometimes even on a tree to tree basis. However, one thing remains consistent; the key environmental cue for spring bloom is cold temperatures. Even though the needed temperature depends on the factors listed above, consistency is key.  

Some species of trees only need weeks of cool temperatures, whereas others may need months. In the New England area, you can expect a trembling aspen to be among the first sets of trees to bloom and the white ash trees to be among the last. If you were to compare a red maple in the region to one that was native to Florida, you could see the time needed reduced from a few months to almost no time at all. Below is a brief video that explains the dormancy period in more detail.

Black’s concern was related to the inconsistencies in the weather and how it would affect his orchard’s trees. He saw them starting to bud and felt, “most, if not all, were damaged.”

The Wall Street Journal touched on similar issues and concerns in December when temperatures were well above normal across the Midwest and Northeast. According to their article, constant shifts in weather patterns aren’t likely to damage plants over the long term. However, any blooms that appear in the warmth and then are killed off because of an additional period of cold are unlikely to reappear this spring. If that happens, the supply of fresh fruit during this year’s harvest could be affected.

Bob Rarthel of Mequon, WI. raises 22,000 apple trees. The weather he’s seen has also given him reasons for concern. He’s worried that the warm air could have prevented the trees from sustaining the annual cold weather protection they produce when preparing for dormancy.  

“The potential for damage is high,” he said during an interview with the paper.

Concern isn’t limited to apple trees either. Cherry trees in Wisconsin and peach and nectarine trees in Massachusetts are also providing worry for growers. Those concerns have only heightened with the recent rash of cold and snow that both parts of the country have seen over the last several days. Following last week’s high temperatures across much of the region, the drastic cool down may have caused even more harm to an already precarious situation. If it drastically affects the $17.5 billion dollar industry like many have now predicted, we could see the trouble show up in everything from our diets and our pocketbooks to our country’s rural economy.

Only time, and Mother Nature herself, will tell just what this could mean for local flora and seasonal harvests.