Plants, Animals Signify The Winter that Wasn’t

Posted on 29 February 2012

purple-crocus

By Claire Walla


Is that? It can’t be… a purple crocus? In the middle of winter?!

Yes, it’s barely March, and June, it seems, is already bustin’ out all over.

According to Dee Yardley, Sag Harbor Village Superintendent of Public Works, the lack of snow and ice means the village is already shifting gears.

Rather than bringing out the snow plow, village crews are clipping branches and clearing leaves and debris from village roadways. And as far as he can tell, the weather still looks good at least through next week.

“We’re going to be ahead of schedule big time,” he noted.

The horticultural world is seeing a similar change of pace.

“I’ve been gardening all year long!” said Bridgehampton resident Paige Patterson, an avid gardener and garden consultant at Marder’s Nursery. “My garlic is up, so is my hellebore, and the daffodils are already six inches [tall],” she explained. Patterson went on to say she has two flowering trees in her yard, including a flowering Japanese apricot, which is already in bloom. “I have the most spectacular pink trees!”

Still, she added, “The most impressive thing is that my rose bush has new leaves on it… that’s crazy.”

She said rose bushes typically don’t sprout leaves until well into March, and hers had foliage in February.

According to Patterson, mild weather patterns will lead to a “gorgeous” spring — that is, if a cold snap doesn’t get in the way.

If a freak cold spell hits the East End while plants are starting to bud, Patterson said the blooms will get killed off. While most species of flower will regenerate and work toward re-blooming later in the season, she said the situation is not so sunny for hydrangeas.

The white, soft-serve-ice-cream-shaped Hydrangea Paniculata, will be able to weather the storm, but “Most hydrangeas only have one set of buds,” she explained, like the Nikko Blues that pepper the East End in the summer months.

“They set their flower buds in early August,” Patterson began. “The problem we first had was that [Tropical Storm Irene] defoliated everything. The salt air got on everything and all the leaves browned. So, most of the 2012 buds actually opened in 2011. The ones that didn’t are opening now.”

Because these flowers do not regenerate growth as readily as other flowers, Patterson said any freezing cold weather at this point could potentially kill-off the blue Nikko Hydrangeas for the season.

As for the climate we’ll be privy to in the spring, that much remains to be seen. What Patterson, and others, are already predicting with some degree of certainty, however, concerns another aspect of gardening: pests.

“I think we’re going to have a really bad bug year,” Patterson added. “I’m really stressed about that.”

According to Geoffrey Nimmer of East End Garden Design, the relatively warm weather combined with the lack of moisture we’ve experienced this year combine to create a recipe not only for more bugs, but for fungi.

“Fungi that lives in the ground and affects roses and some flowering trees are usually kept at least somewhat in check by a good hard freeze,” Nimmer wrote in an email. “I think it will be particularly hard on turf, both because of the fungus issue and because there will be more grubs closer to the roots of lawns earlier in the season.”

According to the circle of life, Nimmer continued, grubs mean moles and moles very often bring voles. And neither vermin happen to be good for vegetation.

And unfortunately, as many of us know, certain warm-weather pests are not restricted to the gardening arena.

Former East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny, who lives in Noyac, said this year’s weather conditions could have created a big year for everyone’s favorite summertime arachnid: the tick.

“Just last Wednesday I got an adult female deer tick on me,” Penny said. “That’s the earliest I’ve ever seen them in winter.”

In the vein of springtime annoyances, Sag Harbor resident Lester Ware said he’s already started taking allergy medicine, a spring-time routine he began this year mid-February.

“It’s as early as I’ve ever taken it,” he exclaimed, saying he usually begins taking meds late-March.

According to Dr. Richard Nass — an ear, nose and throat doctor with offices in Amagansett — these early sneezes may not have a direct correlation to pollen count, at least not yet. He said biometric pressure changes that occur when the seasons shift initially cause nose and throat membranes to get agitated.

However, he added, this may just be the beginnings of more successive sneezes.

“In the long term, it’s been a wet season, so the root systems of plants have done very well,” he continued. So, in that sense, “we would expect it to be a bad allergy season.”

For his part, Penny has seen a lot of seasons come and go, and this one, he noted, is very odd indeed.

“This is the most unusual winter I’ve experienced in 76 years,” said Penny, referencing influential paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who coined a theory he referred to as “sweepstakes,” which deals with random moments in evolution.

As Penny explained it, “Things come and go according to the season, but there’s always the chance that something unusual will happen to change the whole direction of evolution and nature.”

This year, reproductive rates are already up, Penny added, and with such warm weather fostering many throughout the winter, he said many species might grow even more.

“One group that’s going to really go sky high is the turkeys, they’re all over the place.” Penny continued. “And because the numbers are so high to begin with, when they get a little extra food from [more] vegetation and insects they’ll go hog wild.”

He predicted that the East End could be in the midst of a so-called “sweepstakes.”

Although, he said, cold weather would throw a wrench in the spokes. And, you never know, it could very well snow in June.

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