- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The District’s prized cherry blossoms are in peril, and farmers in Maryland and Virginia are battling to save their strawberry patches and fruit trees after a sudden freeze settled over the region this week.

Unseasonably warm weather suddenly yielding to winter’s chill has tricked regional crops into early blooms, then trapped them in freezing conditions.

Frigid temperatures overnight Tuesday caused widespread damage to the cherry blossom trees lining the Tidal Basin, the National Park Service said Wednesday.

The sudden cold had affected blossoms that had reached the “puffy white fifth of sixth stages in the bloom cycle,” the Park Service said.

Many of the blossoms are particularly vulnerable to the cold because they are close to peak bloom, which is set to start Saturday, and are exposed from the protection of their buds.

Cherry blossoms start to sustain damage at 27 degrees Fahrenheit, and temperatures at 24 degrees and lower can destroy up to 90 percent of blossoms.

Just before midnight Tuesday, temperatures fell to 27 degrees, and there was a five-hour stretch early Wednesday when temperatures fell below 24 degrees. Temperatures are forecast to be in the low 20s again for the next two nights.

The National Park Service said horticulturists have taken cuttings of branches holding blossoms at earlier stages and will force them open over the next 24 to 48 hours to determine what damage may have occurred in them.

In Virginia, strawberry plants sprouted buds much earlier than normal due to the warm winter. Because of that, the buds were left vulnerable to the freezing temperatures.

“The warm weather in February had the crops advance more than normal, so when we had the cold weather last night with the wind, it made it almost impossible to protect them,” said Roy Flanagan, Virginia Beach agriculture extension agent.

For strawberries, a lot of growers use a frost blanket to hold in the heat from the earth, Mr. Flanagan said. The blankets warm up during the day and hold in the heat at night, raising the temperature on the ground by as much as 7 degrees. Since strawberries bloom several times over the season, the crop could rebound.

Fruit trees, however, are a different story. Mr. Flanagan said most varieties bloom all at once, so if the blossoms are damaged, the whole crop is lost. To prevent that, farmers often will stagger their harvest with a variety of fruit trees that bloom at different times.

“That means they don’t have a whole field of one variety, so hopefully just the early varieties bloomed before the cold,” Mr. Flanagan said.

Fruit farmers in Maryland saw the snow, wind and cold ravage trees that had bloomed early.

About 90 percent of the apricots at the Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont were killed, and some of the plum crop was damaged as well, according to a Frederick News Post article.

Apricot trees tend to be among the earliest to bloom, so they’re often affected by the chill of early March, according to a University of California’s master gardener program.

“The early blooming habits of apricots give them a more limited range than that of peaches and nectarines. Late spring frosts tend to damage apricot blossoms and limit fruit set,” says the university’s guide to apricot growing.

Charles Schuster, a senior agent at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture, said that some early-blooming peach varieties and cherries were damaged by the weather.

“There’s a good chance those trees will not yield fruit at all this year,” Mr. Schuster said Wednesday.

Only time will tell how much of the region’s crop yield was damaged by the combination of a warm February followed by a stint of freezing weather. Farmers across the region are scrambling to cover ground plants and hoping that temperatures don’t drop again, destroying what’s left of the early blossoms.

“It’s really hard to tell damage for sure. We won’t know for a couple weeks,” Mr. Schuster said. “You’re always at the whim of mother nature.”

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