All across the country, scientists and non-scientists alike are keeping track of a natural, easy-to-observe, even joyful event: the first opening of flower buds. By writing down the dates when plants bloom in our home regions, citizen scientists – people like you and me who are willing simply to observe and take notes – are building a base of knowledge to understand the complex ecological interactions within and far beyond our neighborhoods.
What’s so useful about recording plant bloom times? We are living in an era of global climate change that is profoundly affecting the earth’s biosphere. Scientists around the world are tracking changes on a local basis and enlisting citizens in their efforts to amass enough data to identify trends and make predictive models. This work will ultimately guide efforts to maintain healthy ecosystems.
There is already evidence that as average temperatures rise in a given location, plants blossom earlier. For instance, an Illinois study compared historical bloom times with bloom times tracked over a recent three-year period and found that forsythia, black locust, and red maple are blooming significantly earlier. This revelation was made possible because of data collected by ordinary citizens contributing to Project BudBurst (all websites and tools are listed at the end of this post).
A shift in bloom times of native plants could have far-reaching effects for the health of the plants themselves, as well as for the insects and wildlife whose own life cycles are tied to the timing of plants’ cycles. These are the concerns central to a branch of the natural sciences known as phenology.
Phenology is the study of the natural timing of seasonal changes in plants (such as leaf emergence and flower budburst) and animals (such as insect hatches and bird migration), especially in relation to regional weather and climate year after year.
For centuries, naturalists have been fascinated with changes in living things across seasons, and some have taken detailed notes of their observations.
Henry David Thoreau kept a journal for many years recording the first bloom dates of hundreds of different flowers in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s records have proven to be invaluable to modern scientists such as Richard Primack of Boston University. By comparing their own data to Thoreau’s, Primack’s team has discovered that, on average, wildflowers now bloom about 11 days earlier than they did in the mid-19th century, when Thoreau wandered the woods and fields near Walden Pond.1
This research raises important questions: Can plants keep adjusting their physiology to stay in sync with earlier, warmer springs? Will their pollinators also adjust accordingly? The more data citizens can contribute on the phenology of their local plants and animals, the closer scientists will get to answers.
There is an overlap of interest between scientists concerned with tracking plant phenology to monitor climate change and Maine residents who want to help the state’s native plants survive and proliferate. Both begin with observation.
While you are getting to know the characteristics and seasonal changes of native wildflowers, shrubs, or trees with the possible goal of planting more of them, you can easily contribute your observations (in other words, data) to a national phenology project.
Online social networking has transformed the science of environmental monitoring. Internet tools designed to enable citizens to upload their local observations allow scientists around the world to tap into many more thousands of observation hours, in many more locations, than they could previously access. In turn, non-scientists become part of a wider community of people who are exploring endlessly intriguing questions and revelations about changes in the earth’s ecosphere.
One of the most comprehensive nationwide phenology data collection projects is a consortium of universities and federal agencies (including the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Parks Service) called the USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN).
The USA-NPN developed a user-friendly tool called “Nature’s Notebook” for collecting and submitting seasonal observations of both plants and animals. You can download observation sheets to record observations by hand while outdoors, then enter them into your own online “observation deck” later. “Nature’s Notebook” also provides a streamlined version of its web tools with a nifty app for your smartphone or tablet, so you can submit your observations directly from the field.
“Nature’s Notebook” has limited background information and photographs for identifying plants, so it is useful to supplement it with another excellent online resource: New England Wildflower Society’s Go Botany website. The site presents detailed information about New England plants’ characteristics, distribution, and habitats, along with numerous photographs of each species at different points in its life cycle.
“Nature’s Notebook” has abundant choices for species of plants to track – people are collecting data on all manner of natives, nonnatives, and ornamental varieties. There are also no limits on seasonal phases or parts of plants you can observe – leaves, flowers, or fruits as they emerge, unfold, ripen, wither, drop, or disappear from spring through fall.
But since our goal here at the Wild Seed Project is to increase the abundance of the state’s native plants, we encourage you to track native species, focusing especially on their flowers and seeds, which represent the key stages of reproduction that enable plant species to survive and spread.
Below are a few native plants you might find convenient to observe. These are also species of interest to the USA-NPN, so they appear in their list of Maine plants within “Nature’s Notebook.” It is easy to look them up on the Go Botany website to familiarize yourself with their habitats and overall appearance, and with the characteristics of their flowers and fruits.
Trees and Shrubs:
Once you create your own observation deck on the “Nature’s Notebook” site and learn their simple data-collection protocols, it takes only moments to record your observations of plant flowering times and the appearance of fruits or seeds.
You may not think of yourself as a scientist, but it is not too late to play a role in scientific discovery. Keeping track of the flowering dates of native plants in Maine can help scientists everywhere better understand and mitigate the effects of climate change. It can also yield important information for Maine residents who are working to protect and enhance the state’s native plant communities.
You may also find that cultivating a refined awareness of seasonal rhythms in the surrounding plant world is profoundly satisfying. That satisfaction is there for the taking, developing inevitably as we track changes in even one wildflower or one tree. Phenology is thus a gateway to deepening our connections to nature, from which many rewards are bound to come.
Project BudBurst: “A national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data based on the timing of leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants (plant phenophases).”
USA National Phenology Network: “The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals, and landscapes.”
“Nature’s Notebook”: “A national, online program where amateur and professional naturalists regularly record observations of plants and animals to generate long-term data sets used for scientific discovery and decision-making.”
Go Botany (New England Wildflower Society): Provides keys for identifying plants and online tools to share photos and plant information with others.
1 Primack, Richard B., Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)
Kass Hogan, PhD, has a background in ecology, psychology, and education. Her academic research, publications, and presentations have focused on how young people learn about complex ecosystem dynamics.