—by Kay Havens, director of plant science and conservation, Chicago Botanic Garden

Chicago Botanic Garden grad students testing the new Project BudBurst smart phone app. (CBG)
Chicago Botanic Garden grad students testing the new Project BudBurst smart phone app. (CBG)

Having grown up in the Chicago area, I’ve always eagerly awaited those first signs of spring, from red maple buds swelling to the first crocus and pussy willows blooming. As a child, I remember feeling lucky if the lilacs were open on Mother’s Day, so I could pick some for my mom.

Lately they’ve routinely started flowering in April, and in this remarkably early year, I saw some varieties open in late March. Now I’m pleased to report that there is a great new way that individuals can share observations like this to push conservation science forward.

Project BudBurst is a national, web-based citizen science campaign that engages volunteers to capture this type of data on timing of plant phenological events, such as first flower opening, full bloom, or autumn color change. The dates of these events vary from year to year based on climate fluctuations.

Launched in 2007 and co-managed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and the National Ecological Observatory Network, Project BudBurst has the dual goals of informing participants about the effect of climate on plants and helping scientists understand how plant communities are responding to environmental changes. Participants can report regular observations over time on a specific individual plant, such as a tree in their yard, or they can report one-time observations about a plant see they while on vacation or on a hike.

Project BudBurst was designed to be easy and straightforward. The website contains guides to help observers select and identify species and identify the particular phenophases of interest, such as first bloom, leaf emergence, fruit ripening, and others. People of all ages can join the effort: Many participants are school groups and there’s a special section called BudBurst Buddies aimed for the youngest participants. You can also download a smart phone app—it’s all about making participation even easier!

So far we’ve already seen a lot of buzz on the project. Data has been used in several scientific papers, and has been used in some regional studies to compare with earlier observations. For example, in 2011, we were able to compare Project BudBurst data collected in the Chicago region to some historical observations by the preeminent Chicago botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm, as published in their Plants of the Chicago Region (1994). Swink and Wilhelm made phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early ’90s for their book. There were 15 species that had both Project BudBurst observations and historical data. Nine of those species had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007-2011 than was ever seen by Swink and Wilhelm, which you can see in the table.

Comparison of earliest first flowering date for nine species common to the Chicago area. Swink & Wilhelm data was collected from the ’50s-1994, and the contemporary Project BudBurst data reflect observations made between 2007-2011.

We hope that more people around the country will share their seasonal observations about plants via Project BudBurst, and contribute to this vital national dataset helping scientists understand how plants respond to change. After all, there are few things more enjoyable than taking a walk and looking at flowers on a beautiful day!

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