Winter arrives late with sudden cold snap Freeze threatens flowers and fruit

March 11, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

If the forecasts were accurate, your early daffodil blooms might be frozen in their beds this morning.

An invasion of cold, Canadian air has pushed the "pause" button on two months of unusually mild winter weather in Maryland.

In addition to harming the blossoms on homeowners' bulbs and any newly emerged leaves, the cold might have doomed the flowers on some cherry trees and knocked out at least some of the state's apricot and plum crops.

"God never made farming easy," said Tony Evans, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture.

But ornamental dogwoods and other less eager flowering trees and shrubs probably are safe.

"Most of your shrubs have not really been pushed far enough to see major damage, nor most of your trees," said Corey Branch, vice president of Pinehurst Nursery in Long Green. "The azaleas and rhododendrons will be fine. All those things are a good three to four weeks from blooming."

The cold snap is expected to bring the state some of the winter's coldest weather before a gradual return to normal temperatures by Sunday.

Normal lows at Baltimore-Washington International Airport this time of year are close to the freezing mark. Normal highs are

about 52 degrees.

The highs today were expected to reach the mid- to upper 30s, with northwest winds of 15 to 20 mph. After evening flurries tonight, lows are likely to range from the lower- and midteens in the northern and western suburbs to about 20 downtown.

Tomorrow will be sunny and cold, with highs in the mid- to upper 30s and lows Thursday night in the upper teens to lower 20s. By Sunday, highs will have reached 50 again.

After that, temperatures should return to the abnormally warm.

"In the six- to 10-day forecast, it looks like this is a glitch," said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Strong. "It continues with a strong southerly jet stream and warm temperatures -- more of what we have been having this winter."

Readings in February at BWI averaged nearly 7 degrees above normal, thanks largely to changes in the continent's two major jet streams triggered by the El Nino phenomenon. January averaged more than 9 degrees above normal.

The temperature fell below 20 degrees one day since Dec. 1 at BWI. That was Jan. 1, when the mercury stopped falling at 17.

There hasn't been a day all winter with a high temperature below freezing at the airport. The coldest days were Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, with highs of 35 degrees.

March weather in the 20s is not all that unusual and generally poses no threat. But the mild winter has accelerated blossoming and put flowering trees, shrubs and bulbs at risk.

The damage is likely to vary widely around the state, and even from yard to yard.

"In the county, anything in flower now and any trees in flower are pretty much going to get shot. It's not going to kill the plants, but it will blow off the flowers," said Pinehurst's Corey Branch.

In the city, where the lows could be 10 degrees higher, or in "microclimates" with sheltered, southern exposures, the blossoms might be spared, he said.

Fruit growers, too, say their risks -- and their worries -- vary, depending on the species, the orchard's location and when the cold strikes.

"Everything's further along than it should be. It is a major concern," said Jay Milburn of Milburn Orchards in Cecil County. His family has 450 acres in fruit trees.

The blossoms on their peach and cherry trees aren't open and aren't in danger. But "they're really starting to swell. They're loosening up. A couple more [warm] days like Monday will really bring them on fast."

Another hard freeze could be costly.

Farther west, in Westminster, trees in Baugher's Orchard are two to three weeks ahead of schedule. But orchard managers have no plans to try to combat the cold with fires or costly helicopter flights. The choppers are sometimes used to stir the air and prevent severe cold from settling on the blossoms.

"We might have some damage, but it's still too early to start wasting money," said Marjorie Baugher. "We're not going to do anything."

At Catoctin Mountain Orchards in Thurmont, owner Robert Black said most of his trees are further behind in their develop- ment than those farther east, and probably safe. But "there's a long ways to go 'til we get into a safe zone at the end of April."

He expects some damage. "We do have apricots, and I guess 20 percent are in full bloom. We do hope to have some, but we'll really just have to wait and see," he said.

The mild winter never allowed the ground to freeze, he said, and "there's been nothing to hold back our tree growth."

Freezing slows the rising sap at winter's end and holds back flower development.

Pub Date: 3/11/98

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