Daffodils bloomed before the start of March.
Trees began budding three weeks earlier than usual.
In a strange twist, there was more pollen than snow this February.
Spring officially arrives at 6:28 a.m. Monday, although to many South Jersey residents, trees and plants alike, it started much earlier this year.
But over the past few weeks, the early spring has come to an abrupt halt, as prolonged March cold has temporarily put the blossoming of trees, flowers and pollen on ice. That has left farmers and allergy sufferers out in the cold for now, wondering if the fickle late-winter weather will have any implications for the spring growing and allergy seasons.
Rick VanVranken, agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, said there seems to be no such thing as normal spring weather anymore.
“Last year it was a cold April and a wet May, and this year everything is a little goofy as well,” VanVranken said.
Long-lived February warmth has been followed by persistent March cold, which VanVranken said “makes it hard to tell what this spring is going to turn into agriculturally.”
Farmers are taking a “wait-and-see” approach, according to VanVranken, who said it got too cold for too long to try and protect anything that started blooming early due to February’s unseasonably warm weather.
Raul Cabrera, who specializes in agriculture for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Upper Deerfield Township, has noticed the early budding of plants throughout South Jersey this year.
“Plants readily respond to environmental cues, like warming temperatures, warmer soil and longer daylight,” Cabrera said, all of which were observed this February.
With warm cues, plants de-harden, lose their ability to withstand cold and become more susceptible to damage, Cabrera said.
“The big question is how advanced the budding process was on plants and trees before the cold came,” Cabrera said.
Once full spring emerges in the coming weeks, any impact from the prolonged March cold will become very evident, Cabrera predicted.
Denny Doyle, of Atlantic Blueberry Co., agrees it is too early for any assessment on this year’s blueberry crop.
“The warm February advanced the blueberries a little earlier than usual, but we won’t be able to tell if the March cold did any damage until things progress further,” Doyle said.
Lee Robertson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said this winter was tied for the third warmest on record in South Jersey.
Robertson said the winter of 2011-12 still holds the top spot, a full one degree warmer than this winter.
But February’s unseasonable warmth was especially exceptional, so much so that it added up to the warmest February on record in South Jersey, which in turn led to more sneezing much earlier than usual.
Sarah Keane, a physician assistant at Shore Physicians Group in Ocean City, said the warm February led to an early start to allergy season.
“We’ve seen a few patients already coming in with early allergies, at the same time still treating the winter flu bug,” Keane explained.
The severity of the pollen season will depend on the frequency of the rain and the wind over the coming months, according to Keane, who said pollen season normally peaks from April through June, depending on the weather. If the warmth returns soon, it could be an early peak for pollen this year.
Despite the persistent March cold, Robertson said the outlook is for a warm spring this year.
“The National Weather Service forecast calls for a higher chance of above-average temperatures for April, May, and June,” Robertson said.
That’s what Doyle and area blueberry farmers want to hear, as they hope for no repeat of last April’s cold.
“We need to get the buds to warm up and start moving again,” Doyle said.