Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Project BudBurst by Elaine Lockey

Prunus x cistena, Purple-leaf Sand Cherry

One of the neatest studies I’ve recently learned about is called Project BudBurst.  This project began in 2007 in an effort to monitor seasonal plant change by involving the public. Ultimately the goal is to see what effect climate change might be having on plants in different regions of the US. Project BudBurst is co-managed by the National Ecological Observatory Network, Inc. (NEON) and the Chicago Botanical Garden.

Citizen scientists carefully observe plants in their backyards or even while out in parks and other places and report data, such as, when there is a first leaf, first flower, first fruit, end of flowering or when 50% of leaves have fallen off a plant.  Anyone can participate and it is a great fun to go out and examine your plants and see what they’re up to for your own knowledge and also to share your information with others for research. The goal is to get as much diverse plant information as possible. There are reports in already for 2011 from around the US on their website and they are fun to read.  One is from Erie, Colorado, for a first leaf on an apple tree- dated March 1!   

I participated last year and entered information about my Western Sandcherry, Prunus besseyi.  I really enjoyed going out and checking on the progress of the buds in the spring and then noting when I saw the first flower.  It also gave me the opportunity to pay close attention to what insects were visiting the flowers and some other interesting details that I might have missed had I not been doing that.

Project BudBurst’s mission statement is to, “Engage people from all walks of life in ecological research by asking them to share their observations of changes in plants through the seasons.” According to their website, participants have included school groups, backyard naturalists, gardeners, seniors in retirement communities, scout groups, college professors and their students, hikers, professional botanists and ecologists, visitors to botanic gardens, visitors to Wildlife Refuges and National Parks, and others. 

There are different levels of observation from an occasional observer to participants who are able to track the phenology of a particular plant throughout the seasons. Phenology is the study of naturally recurring events in plants’ and animals’ life cycles and how seasonal variations in weather, especially in terms of temperature, affect the timing of those events. For example, warmer temperatures in spring bring plants out of dormancy and you will then see buds opening on trees and first leaves emerging.  Fall brings cooler temperatures and leaves will begin to turn color and drop.  

This kind of observational work is ideal for young children.  They are often the ones who see tiny details in nature the best.  Project Budburst has a kid’s website just for them.  The kids’ site teaches children all the basics and timeline of plant growth and then helps them learn how to start a plant journal. I loved how they help kids describe plants.

Here are some examples:
Plants come in all different sizes. The top of my plant is:
·         So tall that I have to look up to see the top of it.
·         About as tall as me.
·         Above my knee but shorter than me.
·         Lower than my knee.
 I can put my arms around my plant: yes or no.

For those of you on Facebook, there’s a Project BudBurst page.  It’s fun to see comments by others about what they are seeing in their gardens.  It feels like a community of like-minded nature lovers.  For more information on this and other Citizen Science projects you can do in your community, visit