Citizen scientists observe spring blooms
University of Illinois Extension
URBANA, Ill. - Watching for the first blooms of spring has always been one of the most highly anticipated activities for nature and plant lovers. But keeping records of events in nature such as bloom time is actually an important scientific endeavor, says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Alicia Kallal.
This record keeping aids the study of the timing of biological events, known as phenology, such as flowering or migration, in relation to seasonal or climate changes.
“While phenology is one of the oldest environmental sciences that humans have studied, recent interest in understanding how plants and animals are responding to changes in our climate and weather patterns has reinvigorated this branch of science,” says Kallal.
One of the most prominent American figures to study phenology was Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). His collection of essays on phenology, conservation, and land ethics, “A Sand County Almanac,” was published after his death in 1949.
His writings beautifully illustrate the importance of keeping records of the events in nature to expand our understanding of the plants, animals, and ecosystems that surround us.
Another even earlier figure in the history of plant phenology was Robert Marsham (1708-1797).
Marsham was a wealthy land owner in England, who in 1736, began meticulously recording seasonal weather changes, tree foliation, bird migration, first sightings of butterflies and swallows, and flowering dates of several plant species.
Each year, until his death in 1797, he tracked the same phenological events.
He reported this work to The Royal Society of London in 1789 as his 27 “Indications of Spring.”
“Marsham can be considered one of the first citizen scientists in history,” Kallal says. “Citizen science projects allow average people to make observations in nature, as Marsham did, and report their observations to a larger network that will make their data available to researchers and the general public.”
One example of a flourishing, modern-day citizen science network is Project BudBurst.
Project BudBurst began its mission in 2007 at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The goal of the project was to get people involved in nature and environmental science by having them observe the seasonal life events of plants.
Now participants across the country are making careful observations of the timing of important plant life stages throughout the year and reporting their data to Project BudBurst.
These life stages, called phenophases, include leafing out, flowering, and fruit set.
Participants can choose to make single observations to report the stage of a plant on a particular date, or observe a specific plant for multiple seasons to report when it goes through each phenophase.
Choosing plants to observe is easy; the site has a list of over 250 plants that can be sorted by the state you live in or by plant category, such as a grass, wildflower, or deciduous tree.
The list includes common species such as maple trees, dandelions, and forsythias, as well as native plants like little bluestem and red columbine.
“Project BudBurst is a very accessible way to get involved in citizen science,” Kallal says. “It is great for individuals or classes of school children. The site has wonderful resources for educators that want to get youth outside and give them the experience of making scientific observations.”
To learn more about Project BudBurst, visit their website: budburst.org.
“If you are concerned about invasive plants, and plant phenology has piqued your interest, you may also consider contributing observations to the Illinois Invasive Plant Phenology Report,” Kallal adds.
The University of Illinois Extension Forestry Program relies on observations from volunteers to produce the monthly invasive plant phenology report. Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer observer should contact Chris Evans, Extension forester at 618-695-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Volunteers are asked to make monthly observations on three to four invasive species in their area.
To explore other citizen science projects in Illinois and across the nation, visit the University of Illinois Library’s citizen science guide http://guides.library.illinois.edu/citizen-science/find-a-project.