In Madison Square Park, the award-winning witch hazel plant collection reached peak bloom weeks before it was expected. In Central Park, the cherry blossoms starting popping up much earlier than usual. After this warm winter with very little snow, spring blooms are bursting open earlier in the city's parks, and though they're a welcome sight after a gray season, it's also a little unsettling.
"Plants depend on these temperature signals to say, 'Hey, winter is over. Winter came, period,'" Stephanie Lucas, Madison Square Park Conservancy's director of horticulture and park operations, tells Time Out. "Plants that are out in the natural environment that have been there for decades ... get confused by these changes in temperatures."
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While the tulips at Madison Square Park are still expected to stay on their normal schedule, its witch hazel bloomed ahead of schedule. Though the witch hazel normally blooms through mid-April, their spidery red, yellow and orange pom pom-like flowers will likely stop flourishing sooner this year. The park's Japanese Apricot tree started to bloom about 10 days early, as well.
Think of the situation like this, Lucas explains: Imagine you're a bear and you just woke up from hibernation. You go to get some honey, and it should be there as it's always been. But the bees couldn't make it because they need a particular flower; that flower bloomed two weeks early and the blooms are now gone.
"These are really problematic when we have these patterns and these cycles mismatched because it's really affecting more than the plants and the beauty that we see. It's affecting the whole environment," Lucas says. "It's a cascading effect."
Back in the fall, the garden team at Madison Square Park planted 10,000 bulbs in preparation for spring, and they’re expected to bloom in mid-April. This year, the park conservancy worked with mathematicians to create a special display called Geometry of Flowers. The exhibit features tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and anemones arranged in geometric patterns based on Fibonacci sequences. Geometry of Flowers is now on view through May 9.
Though they prepared early for spring, the weather didn't necessarily cooperate over the winter. Because the ground never froze at Madison Square Park this winter, the soil missed out on its important freeze-thaw cycle. That cycle helps push compacted soil back to the surface and even alerts bugs that it's time to wake up, Lucas explains.
Thankfully, even though it seemed like "winter never showed up" and snow didn't fall very often, Lucas said, enough rain fell to keep the plants hydrated.
Uptown from Madison Square Park, Central Park's facing similar struggles, both with soil challenges and early-blooming cherry blossom trees.
With the seasons in flux, Central Park staff say they've come to expect unpredictability, whether that's a lack of snow or a "tropical rainforest climate." These dizzying effects of climate change can also spell a warmer winter making way for earlier cherry blossoms. "This year’s lack of snow, wet conditions, and above average temperatures have had an impact on Central Park’s winter accessible landscapes, which use the quiet winter months to rest," the park Conservancy said in a press release.
Normally during the winter, snow protects the lawns, but this year, the lawns weathered more foot traffic than usual on wet, unfrozen soil, the park staff explained on Instagram.
Central Park's turf care team is working to aerate and seed the lawns to prepare them ready for the busy spring season. Everybody can help make the park springtime ready by staying on the paths and not climbing over fences. That'll help the lawns rejuvenate for public use.
Across town at the High Line earlier this month, a group of teens and community members completed the 2023 Spring Cutback, an effort to trim plants by hand to make room for spring growth and flowers. All the dried leaves, stalks and other plant material were composted and even worked back into the plant beds as mulch.
Lucas recommends that all New Yorkers visit their neighborhood park to form a connection with nature.
"Not only do you feel closer to the world around you, you realize you're part of these patterns and cycles," she says. "Just taking that walk outside is just so important to grounding yourself. ... I think there's something to be said for observing our natural neighbors, birds, bees and that, but then also grounding yourself in your community through interactions with people in public spaces."