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Apr. 13, 2011

Stop and Smell the Flowers. Then Report the Data.

by Lisa Gardiner

Click to enlarge images

The apple tree in my backyard has been under surveillance for several weeks.

In March it was an unassuming mass of brown twigs amidst late winter snow. Then those twigs started to have swollen buds. More recently, green leaves appeared. Now, as evidenced by this photo, there are tightly huddled pink petals amidst the leaves. Any day, I suspect flowers.

My apple tree isn’t the only one under surveillance. It’s in good company -- one of thousands of plants around the United States that are monitored through the seasons with Project BudBurst.

In all 50 US states, Project BudBurst volunteers are watching plants to understand the timing of seasonal change –- from when flowers bloom and new growth starts in spring to when leaves drop to the ground in autumn. Plants are responding to warmer climate by adjusting the timing of these changes, known as phenophases. And scientists are interested in how plants are adjusting.

Not all plant species go through the same sequence of changes through the seasons. My apple tree will move from its first leaves to flowers. Other plants, like forsythia, have flowers before leaves. For an in-depth look at how Aspen trees awake in the spring producing little fuzzy catkins filled with seeds, take a look at Kara Rogers’ recent post in the NaturePhiles blog on Talking Science.

To participate in Project Budburst, choose a plant – any plant. Then watch it change and share its story at the project web site. You won’t need any special training or equipment. The Project BudBurst web site includes guides to help you identify your plant and its seasonal phenophases.

While thousands of people are involved with the project by collecting data all over the country, I need only to walk down the hall from my office at the National Ecological Observatory Network to visit the team of people who make Project BudBurst possible. They have been busily making enhancements to the project over the winter. Now that temperatures are warming, snow is thawing and plants are reawakening, the Project BudBurst team has debuted a renovated website with new ways to report about the plants in your neighborhood.

There are now several ways that you can participate:

  • Have a plant that’s convenient to watch? Register it on the website and sign up as a BudBurst Observer.
  • See a blooming flower as you are taking a walk? If this is a plant that you may only see once, you can add the data as an Occasional Observation.
  • If you are in elementary school and are interested in making your first observations of plants, check out BudBurst Buddies.

Also new for 2011, Project BudBurst has recently released the Project BudBurst Application for Android to allow people to upload plant observations from their mobile phones. Download the app and next time you are walking the dog, you can contribute to science by uploading pictures of the plants you pass along the way. The Project BudBurst staff at NEON and collaborators at UCLA are collecting feedback from people using the new mobile app over the next several months. If you download and use the app, let them know what you think.

Noticing other signs of spring? Are the frogs singing? Are bears wandering about? Seen any butterflies? If so, check out Nature’s Notebook, a program of the USA-National Phenology Network (NPN) where you can report observations on everything from desert cacti to swamp bullfrogs. Plus, you can explore oodles of similar programs that are documenting how plants and animals respond to seasons by searching the NPN Phenology Observation Programs.

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Lisa Gardiner has a background in several “ologies” – ecology, paleontology and geology. She writes and teaches about nature and environmental science, and also describes the natural world via illustrations and artwork. Lisa is the director of education at the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) where she develops educational resources that help connect people with the natural world. Currently, she is exploring the world of citizen science to help inform NEON’s journey into this exciting area. Lisa holds a Ph.D. in Geology and enjoys exploring the Earth from the tops of Colorado’s mountains to the bottom of the sea.

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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