Monday, September 27, 2010

Fall Colors!

The Rocky Mountains seem to be redeeming themselves this year. Last year we reported on the total disaster in terms of fall colors due to an intense cold snap that occurred early in the season causing all the leaves to simply die and turn brown. This year here in Colorado we are having the perfect combination of weather conditions which has led to a spectacular start on the colors here.

The foothills and mountains are a dazzling gold and yellow, mostly from trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), willows (Salix spp.) and plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides). So how does weather help bring out these colors? In general you need an abrupt transition from hot summer days to crisp fall days with lots of sun, combined with cool but not freezing night temperatures. The cool nights and the shortening days accelerate the hardening off process for these plants where they turn off production of the green chlorophyll pigments, and the warm sunny days allow the other types of pigments (yellows and reds mostly, from carotenoides and anthocyanins) to produce more sugars and bring out maximum colors. In coastal climates the transition from summer to fall is too subtle or you do not have the crisp night temperatures to bring out the full colors that you see in places like the Rocky Mountains or New England. Even in coastal locales you can still find beautiful colors at higher elevations where you again get those cooler night temperatures. In the Northwest and Alaska this can lead to bright scarlet colors in huckleberries and blueberries in particular.

Soon the fall colors will be coming to the lower foothills and plains here in Colorado and should be coming to many northern climates in the next few weeks. We are now getting reports of peak colors starting on trees in northern New England, and from the northern Midwest (especially Minnesota). Other northern and eastern regions are very close to starting to turn. So if you have not yet selected some deciduous trees to monitor this fall now is a good time to get started so you can catch them when they first hit the peak color stage in the next few weeks (when about 50% of the branches and or the leaves start to turn color). This does not mean this budburst stage is when the trees reach their most brilliant colors, that stage often comes a few days or weeks later. After that the last budburst stage to watch for in these trees or shrubs is peak leaf fall, when half or more of the branches loose their leaves.

Now is also a great time to see the effect of site conditions on the development of fall colors. In our neighborhood for example native green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and western hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) are common street trees. Starting on last Saturday the first green ash trees reached budburst’s full color stage. These trees were generally near street intersections where you have the maximum heating effect from the concrete in the streets and curbs. Trees in parks that are surrounded by grass by contrast are still 100% green. This is why last spring we added more features to site descriptions for budburst so that we can get more information on your observation sites, so that scientists can help sort out these local site effects from broader regional climatic effects on plant phenology, or the timing of these events.

Here is a good example of a tree first reaching budburst's full color stage. Notice there are still plenty of green leaves, but clearly more than half the branches have at least some leaves turning color (Green ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica, right on the intersection of two streets, near the Colorado Front Range in Berthoud, Colorado).

Let budburst and the advancement of scientific knowledge about fall be your excuse to more fully enjoy the colors of fall!

For more information about planning travel to see fall colors in your area see:

The weather channel

USDA Forest Service

More on why leaves change color

Paul Alaback

Note: All photos by Paul Alaback. First two from Independence Pass, near Aspen, showing trembling aspen in full color, the others from Berthoud, Colorado featuring western hackberry, and green ash.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A look at conifer phenology

Torrey pines (Pinus torreyana) , one of the rarest conifers in North America,
were sending out new needles in mid-January, near San Diego.

With a cool rainy Memorial Day weekend it seems like new kinds of spring wildflowers have pretty much quit coming out, and we won’t see big changes in what wildflowers are out until we finally get some warm summer days. (its 50 degrees and raining right now). But conifers on the other hand are about as active in producing new Budburst observations as they are any time of the year. So this week I thought it might be useful to do a quick review of the somewhat odd phenology stages of this ancient plant group.

Conifers are pretty interesting group of plants. The conifers were some of the first plants to grow on land, going all the way back to the Carboniferous period more than 300 million years ago, or more than three times as old as as even the most ancient groups of flowering plants that we see today. So does this mean these are “living fossils” and on their way to extinction? Hardly! Conifers despite their long history are amazingly adaptable, and actually have greatly expanded their dominance in many places, thanks to the value people place on the many wood products (or cool year around shade) that can be derived from these fast growing trees. Also these trees can handle ice, snow, wind and other events with much less injuries than broadleaved trees. Here in the West they are often the dominant species in the forest. They occur also in the East and Midwest, but in these warmer humid forests they are typically associated with poor soils, high elevations, or disturbances such as logging or fire. For more tidbits on the natural history of conifers check out books written by Aljos Farjon*

In the spring and summer we are generally looking for a couple of key stages:

First Needles: This is kind of like “budburst” or “budbreak” for flowering plants. This is when you can first see individual needles in a swelling bud

First Pollen: This is similar to “first flower” for flowering plants. The male cones or pollen cones swell, turn the mature color then one day the pollen starts flying (and hay fever season for some observers!).

Full Pollen This is when 50% or more of the branches are dispersing pollen. It often happens within a few days of first pollen.

These stages look a little different depending on which kind of conifer you are looking at. So this year I took some photos of several different kinds. For those of you that live in an area where there are not a lot of native conifers, as in many parts of the Midwest and east, you can also look at shade trees and ornamentals. Since the same species are planted all over the country these can be really interesting and valuable ones to watch, especially if they are growing away from concrete or buildings (like in parks or parkways or a backyard).

Douglas-fir. This is one of the world’s most important trees for timber, and is also one of the most common ornamental trees, so this is a really important species to observe for Budburst. In our area these are always the first to disperse pollen, but are much later in sending out new needles. As you can see in this photo they usually turn bright red just before they disperse pollen. Most pollen cones (male cones) of conifers have bright colors just before they are ripe.

Spruces. These are one of the most poplar ornamental trees in the country. The most common species are the Colorado Blue spruce, Engelmann spruce (native to the West and Northwest), Norway spruce (with the largest cones) and white spruce (native to Alaska and most northern countries). They generally disperse pollen after the hemlocks in our area and send out their needles about the same time as they disperse pollen. Spruces generally have reddish pollen cones which then turn yellow or brown when they disperse pollen. All of the spruce species in our area actually have a "cap" of scales at the tip of the bud when they reach the first needles

Soon afterwar
ds as the needles grow the cap of scales falls off.

Pines. These are some of the most common conifers across the country. They have a more unusual pattern of development, depending on how fast or young they are. Instead of just having needles emerge from buds formed during the previous year they often form “candles” which are new twigs or stems, usually covered with new needles. Like the other conifers the “new needle” stage is defined by when you can see new individual needles. This usually means that you will see the needles emerging from the tips of scale-covered bundles, usually after the candles have formed.

Pines are generally the last group of conifers to disperse pollen and send out new needles in our area. Most of them have pollen cones attached just below the clusters of new needles at the tip of the branches, as in the white pine pictured above. Ponderosa pine also looks like this. In our area the northern European pine, Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is usually first to disperse pollen, then ponderosa pine, then finally bristlecone and foxtail pines are the last to pollinate, sometime in early summer.

Some pines like this Scots pine pictured to the left can develop long columns of pollen cones which look a little bit like a stem or needle candle. But the key difference is the color and shape. These are yellowish in color and rounded (as contrasted with the narrow pointed shapes of young developing clusters of needles. These just started pollinating today in my yard. New needles will emerge much later.

So there you have it. The spring stages are pretty easy to see on these trees as long as you know where to look, and as long as you choose a tree that has branches that droop down low, making it easier to see what is going on! Otherwise a good pair of binoculars may be needed to see when things are happening. Since conifers are so widely distributed data from them can be really valuable for phenology scientists. If you have not looked at the phenology of local conifers, give it a try. They can help provide you a whole new perspective on spring!

Look at all this pollen! This Scots pine is producing a lot of cones this year.
Conifers vary a lot in how many cones they produce each year. They usually have a
"big year" every 5-7 years.

Paul Alaback

*Alijos Barjon 2008. A Natural History of Conifers. Timber Press. Portland.

All photos by Paul Alaback, taken mostly in western Montana and at Torrey Pines Reserve, near San Diego.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Redbuds and other spring beauties

We’re enjoying a lovely spring in Chicago this year. Our early spring flowers are starting to fade: lilacs, redbuds, and trillium are all past their peak. I just took a spin around the Garden and saw several species in full bloom, including red columbine, (Aquilegia canadensis), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), the incredible lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), shooting star (Dodecatheon media), strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Jacob's ladder (Polemonium reptans), and golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). Just starting to show their pretty purple-blue flowers are spiderworts (Tradescantia ohiensis). They’ve been open a couple of days here at the Garden and I noticed the first one open in my yard yesterday.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
Photo by Jennifer Anderson, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

On April 19, I drove from Chicago to St. Louis and it was a study in redbud (Cercis canadensis) phenology. In Chicago, the redbuds were just starting to open, they were in peak bloom around Bloomington, Illinois, and by the time I reached St. Louis they were just past peak. In redbud time, we’re about 15 days behind St. Louis. When I was in Boulder last week, I saw redbud in peak bloom there. I would estimate Boulder is about 7-10 days behind Chicago, according to the redbuds!

What is your spring looking like this year? It is May 14th, do you know what your redbud is doing?

Kay Havens

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rapid changes in plant phenology in the Rockies

Spring finally came to the northern Rockies in Missoula,
Montana in early May. Serviceberry and maples are in full bloom.

As mentioned in our blog a few weeks ago, spring has been coming early across the country over the past several decades. How early spring has advanced depends on what species (and what phenophases) you are looking at or where you are. Spring has advanced so rapidly in some places that it appears to be causing stress for some native plant species. A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even documents a bird species in Europe that has increasing numbers of its populations that have apparently quit migrating, in response to warming spring and winter weather (!). Recent studies have documented that plant species that are most flexible and that are changing dates of first flowers or first leaves emerging tend to be doing better than species that are not changing their dates of their phenological stages (phenophases). (spring creep). This effect varies by species and location, so is an active area of scientific research. Scientists still do not clearly understand the causes of this variation by species or location (see Korner and Basler, March 10, 2010 issue of Science )

A recent study (Lesica In Press, Journal of Arid Environments) documented that in semi-arid or dry areas, like here in the Missoula valley of western Montana spring may be advancing even more rapidly than what we have seen in the Midwest and East. Most studies have documented that spring wildflowers are appearing an average of 3 days earlier each decade for the past 30 years or so, or an average of about 10 days earlier than historical records. Most of these studies have been done in humid climates in the eastern US and northern Europe. The Lesica study, and budburst data in this region show that spring is advancing at a rate of 7 or more days per decade for the earliest species, or more than twice what has been reported in most other regions.

Sagebrush buttercups are local sign of spring in our area. They put out leaves in the fall, usually in response to fall rains. Then they put out more leaves and the first flowers usually within a week or so of consistent warm temperatures, usually in the middle of March. In just the past 14 years, Lesica found that these flowers are emerging an average of 1.6 days earlier each year, or more than two weeks over the study. More than seven years of data were available for thirty-two species, 75% of which are flowering earlier. The most rapid advance in dates of first flowers were noted for 10 of the earliest flowering herbs. Comparing budburst data with my monitoring data for these foothills around Missoula, many plant species are flowering earlier even in the summer or fall, another result that is much more dramatic than for many humid sites in the East.

This study highlights the importance of what we are trying to do with our network of volunteers in Project Budburst. While there are general trends of how plants are responding to changes in climate, there are significant differences in some regions. Scientists really need better information on how all parts of the country are changing in response to changes in weather and climate, and how changes vary by species and phenophase.

Keep those observations coming!

Budburst News

Over 10,000 observations submitted by Budburst volunteers! We broke this threshold in early May. Keep up the good work! It is especially valuable when you can make observations on the same sites and species from year to year.

Top 10 wanted! Also check if any of our top 10 species or closely related species occur in your area. These data are especially useful to us in documenting how phenology is changing for these species across the country.

Paul Alaback

Photos: Top-Mount Sentinel, Near Missoula, Montana on April 25th. The cool spring has extended the length of the flowering period for both western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) and for Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
Middle: Sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus) in flower on Mt. Sentinel.
Bottom: Yellow Puccoon or yellow gromwell (Lithospermum ruderale), one of the herbs found to be flowering weeks earlier that was recorded in the early 1990's.

Budburst Website
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Monday, April 19, 2010

Is spring advancing in Chicago?

Spring has fully arrived in the Chicago region. With the last 2 days in the mid-80s, it almost felt like summer, but we’re cooling off to more spring-like temperatures this weekend. We had our first 80 degree day on April 1 and that unseasonably early warmth popped open a lot of flowers. Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) opened its first flowers that day, the same date as a year ago. Forsythia has proven to be one of the biggest “advancers,” a species that is blooming earlier in the year. In just the three years of records from Project BudBurst, we’ve seen significantly earlier blooming of Forsythia in the Chicago area.

This year I was 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 published in their Plants of the Chicago Region (1994). Swink and Wilhelm made phenology observations from the mid 1950s to the early 1990s for their book. There were 15 species that had both Project BudBurst observations and historical data. Seven of those species had a first flower earlier in one or more of the last 3 years than even seen by Swink and Wilhelm. These species included Forsythia which advanced the most (from April 25, the earliest historical observation, to April 1, the earliest Project BudBurst observation), Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) advanced from May 14 to May 3, Dogtooth violet (Erythronium americanum) advanced from April 6 to April 1, Red Maple (Acer rubrum) advanced from March 20 to March 6, Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) advanced from May 1 to April 26, Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) advanced from May 9 to April 20, and Common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) advanced from May 3 to April 16. This year, we can document an even earlier lilac bloom. I saw the first flower open just two days ago (April 14) at Chicago Botanic Garden.

Many thanks to all of you who are watching plants and submitting your observations! Getting out to a natural area and admiring the spring wildflowers is a wonderful way to celebrate Earth Day (April 22). I hope you have a chance to do so, and let us know what you see!

Kay Havens

Friday, April 2, 2010

Project Budburst and planning a native garden

At this moment I am stuck in yet another snowstorm in the Rockies. In this case it is Glenwood Springs, Colorado. They say here the season depends on the day. Just a few days ago it was 82 degrees. So the local radio station is saying we are back to winter here for the next several days. Anyway at times like this it is nice to think about spring blooms and ways to enjoy the coming season. On our Facebook site lots of folks have been sharing observations on how spring is coming to various places across the country. Red maples are blooming in Chicago and across much of the Midwest and East, mayapples are starting, California has been in full spring flower display for more than a month, and the coastal Pacific Northwest is in spectacular color right now, including not only red maples but a wide variety of bulbs, ornamental shrubs and trees. I will provide a full update in another week or so. Here in western Montana the latest colorful spring arrival is yellow bells, Fritillaria pudica (see photos), biscuit root (Lomatium coos), the first of the wild parsleys that grow in grasslands around here (and an important source of food for native tribes - the roots can be used as a source of starch - hence the common name). They even bloom in the snow!

Today I would like to share a great blog on native plant gardening (and spring phenology information too) that I thought would be of interest to many of you. It reminds me of a great way to help with Project Budburst, and to combine an interest in nature and gardening with learning how weather and climate can influence the unfolding of spring in your area.

The concept is simple. A phenology garden. Why not plant some of these plants that you enjoy or like to observe in a semi-natural garden in your yard? Then it will be easy to make very accurate observations on when the first flowers and leaves come out. You can even go one more step and put out a temperature sensor and then you can really learn a lot about how weather and climate influences spring phenology in your area. Here is an example from Missoula, Montana, where David Schmetterling provides lots of great ideas on how to design and establish a native plant garden in your yard and share observations on spring phenology of these plants even including all the birds that first arrive to this great habitat. Kay Havens, The Chicago Botanical Gardens and their collaborators also have in the works a number of projects to encourage people to establish phenology gardens so that gardeners can help Project Budburst.

Top 10 most wanted species observations in America! and other updates to our website

Several important new additions to our website. See resource page for educators, and our information on the "top 10" species we would like to get more observations of this season. The more places we can get observations on these species the more scientists can do with this data. Check to see if any of these plants occur in your area. Also we now have added more habitat information for when you register a new site for making budburst observations. This will make our data even more useful for scientists. We would also like this habitat information for your already registered sites. Update old site descriptions by emailing this information to:

NPN Launches Bird Phenology Program

Also, for those of you that like to keep track of when birds come to your back yard or to places you make your phenology observations, or go for a walk The National Phenology Network (NPN) has just announced a new program to make it easy to submit your observations on birds. Bird watchers have documented many changes in spring arrival dates of migratory species, similar to what we have been observing for plants. Having observations of birds and plants from the same places adds much scientific value to these observations.

Paul Alaback

Watching spring in a native garden

Replacing a lawn with a native garden

Report Observations for Project Budburst

Budburst Facebook Page

Friday, March 19, 2010

Update from Chicago

It’s not quite spring yet in the Chicago region, but we’ve been given a teaser. The temperature crept up above 60 degrees for the first time this week and we all celebrated by shedding coats and opening car windows. The ice on the lakes at Chicago Botanic Garden finally disappeared today and some of the earliest signs that spring is on its way are appearing on nature’s calendar. Red maples (Acer rubrum), one of our earliest blooming native tree species, and Black alder (Alnus glutinosa), a weedy exotic tree species, are blooming right now. Some of the Black alders look almost yellow from a distance since their reddish-brown catkins are releasing so much pollen. The release of pollen from a flower, called “anthesis” by us botanical types, is a sign that the flower is fully mature. When you are ready to report a first-flower observation, please check that the flower is completely open and (if your eyes are good) look for pollen being released.

As I was driving into the Garden yesterday, I almost gasped…in the distance was a shrub with bright yellow flowers. Could it be forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) already? It would be 10 days earlier than last year. I went back later in the day on foot and checked. Alas, it was a beautiful yellow cultivar of the spring witch hazel (Hammamelis vernalis). While out and about, I checked the forsythia and its buds were still tightly closed. But I did see some other very early flowers, including snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) and some early purple crocus cultivars. It’s a sign that, despite the forecast of snow this weekend, spring will be here soon!

Thanks to all of you who are watching plants and submitting your observations! We appreciate your efforts!

Kay Havens

Photos: Pati Vitt. Chicago Botanic Garden on March 18th.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Spring comes to the country – at least in places!

March 9th, 2010

Its been a crazy year for weather so far, even more than usual. A strong El Ă‘ino may help explain the pounding of the California coast by intense rain and snow storms. At the same time the South and the East have had some of the more impressive snowstorms in recent years. So it all depends on where you are, which is exactly what we are expecting with climate change. Change is the norm, but exactly how it might change seems to depend on where you are and a lot of specific details. Everything is connected.

Anyway, as I write
this it is snowing heavily here in town, even though yesterday it got up to 50 degrees, and on Sunday the whole town of Missoula, Montana seemed to go crazy in celebration of spring, with shorts, tee-shirts, ice cream stands overflowing with people, as the mercury reached a searing 60 degrees – our warmest day in 2010 so far. Of course the Rockies are famous for crazy weather. High elevations, low moisture, and the effect of large mountain systems on airflow can lead to abrupt changes especially in Colorado and Wyoming. But even Montana is doing pretty well on this score. I was actually supposed to be helping an elementary school start a budburst project this afternoon – but mother nature took care of those plans.

Blueberries in flower in Alaska on Feb 14th?
-- Highlights of 2010 Observations so far...

The most amazing reports so far are from the West coast. We had a report of early huckleberries in flower, and salmonberries (related to raspberry) sending out new leaves in
Southeastern Alaska (Sitka), in February! Normally this occurs in early April. As you may have read or heard about, Alaska has had an amazingly mild winter. Several times in January temperatures were more mild in Anchorage than in many cities on the West coast, Midwest or East. There was no snow on the ground when I was in Ketchikan, Alaska in February as well. Hazels were in bloom in Lacey, Washington on Feb 19th. On February 22nd we also had a report of ornamental cherries in bloom near Seattle! All quite early.

As you would expect we are also beginning to get reports of flowers and first leaves from plants in the southern part of the country. Many chaparral flowers are in bloom in coastal California right now, and Taiwanese cherries were in bloom in Baton Rouge, La on Feb 23rd. Expect amazing flower displays on the California coast this year in response to all those rainstorms.

Even in northern cold areas you should be able to start seeing signs of spring soon. We have reports of hardy shrubs and trees such as hazel, and alder putting out catkins (their compact cone-like clusters of tiny flowers) and dispersing pollen. Even here in Montana mountain alders started dispersing pollen on March 4th, and aspen flower buds are beginning to open (the pussy willow stage, see photo). Many of our early wildflowers put out leaves in the fall which turn red during the winter. They are now mostly turning green and starting to grow. So in another week or so we might see the first spring flowers.

As you would expect we still see spring as coming a little slower than normal in many places in the East and Midwest. Last year, for example we had reports of red maples starting along the Gulf Coast in mid January, and up towards the central Midwest in February and early March. We still do not have any reports of red maple. These trees are common ornamentals across the country so please send in your data if you find any in bloom. Species like this are particularly valuable for the budburst program since we can compare them across the country. Red maple flowers are a good indicator of the beginning of spring.

So far (as of April 2nd) we have reports of dandelion from California, Alabama, North Carolina and Washington state. Early bulbs such as crocus, and daffodils have been reported from California north to Seattle, and as far north as Clayton, Wisconsin in the Midwest. The first Forsythia was reported on Feb 11th in Georgia.

Please also post other interesting signs of spring in your area. We have reports of honey bees in Virginia on Feb 21st, and today we have a report of wasps flying in southern Indiana. Even here in Montana we had lots of flies in flight yesterday (before the snowstorm!).

This should be a very interesting year to see how plants and animals respond to our crazy weather, especially so we can compare with future years. Many of you are already reporting signs of spring. Please keep them coming, both as posts to our Facebook page and as reported observations on the Budburst website. Please help us document these interesting patterns with your observations!

New Developments for 2010 Budburst Season
Look for a new look to the Budburst webpage in coming weeks, and many new features. We also will be providing more information for teachers and schools using budburst. We are also working with UCSB and the US Fish and Wildlife Service Ventura Field Office in developing materials for making observations of native plants that are common to the chaparral region in coastal California this year. So if you live in this area please look for plants you can monitor including species such as lemonadeberry, blue elderberry, black sage, California fuchsia, sticky monkeyflower, and blue-eyed grass.

For Your Reading List

Summer World
A couple books came across my desk this month that I thought would be of interest to Budburst. The first is a wonderful book by a talented and fascinating writer/illustrator/naturalist. Heinrich is a biologist with many interests, but most well known for his writings on bird behavior. He is the author of “Trees in my Forest” which should also be of interest especially for those of you living in the Midwest or northeastern U.S., as well as “Mind of the Raven”. Anyway his latest book is, of course about summer, and in particular the many interesting things he has learned about the season with his students up around his cabin in Maine. But he also has a few introductory chapters in this book on the transition from winter to spring. He describes for example explorations he and others have done in trying to figure out how common trees and shrubs determine “when it is time”. Clipping off twigs every few weeks from winter to spring, then putting them in a sunny warm spot you can learn a lot about how plants vary in their cues as to when to put out leaves and flowers. Highly recommended. Also see what matters most

Early Spring
As mentioned in the NPN participant newsletter in March. Amy Seidl’s new book “Early Spring” is a beautifully illustrated book describing the many ways in which springs in New England have changed in recent years. It should be of general interest to Budburst participants and in particular those of you living in the Midwest or East where changes in the phenology of many of your common species are described.

Paul Alaback

Photos (all by Paul Alaback):

Top - view from my backdoor today (March 9th)

Deer - (March 9th) Looks confused doesn't he? He is not the only one. White-tailed deer in our back yard.

Aspen bud -- during the sunny weekend this aspen, the European variety (Populus tremula) started opening its flowering buds. It will probably be several weeks before it reaches the first pollen stage. Our native aspens (Populus tremuloides) also opened their flower buds last week.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Jan 15th 2010 Phenology update from California

Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve, La Jolla, California in January

For the past month I have had the pleasure of avoiding the full intensity of Montana's winter by staying close to the ocean down here in La Jolla Cove, just north of downtown San Diego. While San Diego is famous for its beaches, mild dry weather year around, and the Chargers football team, it is actually quite an amazing place for naturalists too. Its a real center of plant diversity with over 2,000 species, and a wide range of habitats from beaches, chaparral, grassland, and riparian woodlands, up to various kinds of forests up in the foothills and mountains--all within a short drive from downtown.

Southern California, and the rest of the southern US are good places to look for the
beginning of our phenology season since it usually happens here first. You would think with the warm weather this winter we would be recording records of early wildflowers. But as with other dry ecosystems this is one where rainstorms and moisture availability are often just as important as temperature in determining when plants first start growing again.

To make a quick assessment of where things are here I found a nice trail along some coastal bluffs at Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve (where many rare species and nice examples of chaparral or sage scrub vegetation can be found), then I went out to the Blue Sky Ecological reserve several miles inland near Poway, where you can see some nice examples of chaparral & riparian woodlands much of which is coming back vigorously from the Witch Fire which raged through the area in 2006.

At Torrey Pines, on the coast there are few flowers in bloom right now. Since this is a Mediterranean Climate, with winter rains and hot dry summers, now is the time when there is usually the most vegetative growth. By looking carefully you can find a few individual flowers and occasionally a whole bush or herb in bloom, but the dry conditions make them pretty sparse.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea) and Mission mazanita (Xylococcus bicolor) have full flowers now. You can also see a few California buckwheats in flower (Eriogonum californica), and a few rue bushes (Cneoridium dumosum) and California sagebrushes (Artemisia californica) still in flower. Just a few lemonaid berries (Rhus integrifolia) have flowers, most are still in bud stage. White flowered currant (Ribes indecorum) is in flower. These plants are considered "winter flowers", and will flower off and on over the wet winter period. Lots of new leaves out, but most plants have flower buds that are swelling, and probably will give a good display once some good soaking rains arrive (4-6" may come on Monday!). Peak flower display of annual and perennial flowers (local trail describes as "orgasmafantastic") should occur in March, and should be done by May.

Back about 12 miles from the coast in the interior foothills near Poway you can see a slightly different pattern. Here it is warmer during the day (up to 80's lately) but cooler at night (40's). So some plants are little further along or more influenced by the drought here. I could find no sagebrushes in flower, but many in fruiting stage. Riparian woodlands have a lush carpet of bright green seedlings of mostly annual herbs (such as chickweed). Swamp evening primrose, a really exotic looking shrub with giant stems (7' or more tall) and long narrow willow-like leaves is sending out new flowers this week (Oenothera alata). There are also a few scattered sunflowers (such as Haploppapus spp.).

Out in the open the chaparral looks pretty
brown and dormant. But if you look carefully close to the ground you can see the tiny new leaves of California poppy and many other herbs which will give rise to spectacular blooms in late February or early March. Wild cucumber is just starting to send out new flowers, and laurel sumac (Rhus laurina) is sending out new leaves. California buckwheat is in bloom (with many brown old flowers as well). Deerbrush, a yellow legume (Lotus scoparius) is also sending out new flowers (in Torrey Pines I could only find new leaves emerging). Often in the winter the first flowers occur before leaves (such as holly in the East, and catkin-bearing plants like alders, willows, and hazels). Here lots of leaves are coming out, but a sunflower family perennial is sending out bright bluish-white flowers on what appears to be a dead brown stem (Stephanomeria diegensis).

Back in town, where everything is watered lots more flowers can be found, mostly subtropical ones native to South Africa, the Canary Island, the Mediterranean or some tropical countries. Jade plant is a large shrub here, and several are in full flower as are many pansies, geraniums, morning glories, nasturtium, orange trumpet and bougainvillea vines, and India hawthorne (Rhaphiolepis indica). Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) a Mediterranean native has mostly orange fruits but a few are now ripening to a deep red. Today a woodsorrel (Oxalis rubra, aka O. articulata) came into bloom for the first time this month, a beautiful rose colored flower with lush green leaves. This one is like these other plants a common garden plant outdoors in the summer or as an indoor plant in northern climates. But here it grows outside, and in fact has become a weed in coastal California as well as many southern states. It is native to Brazil.

While most of the country is deep in winter and a dormant season for plants, spring should start showing its sign in southern areas as I have seen here in California. Please share observations on first signs of spring in your area. The Budburst 2010 season is off to a good start!

Paul Alaback

See also the Project Budburst facebook page

1. Overview of Torrey Pines Ecological Reserve, looking south from Yucca Pt. trail.
2. Lemonaide berry (Rhus integrifolia) first flowers
Mission mazanita (Xylococcus bicolor) one of the many flowers unique to this area in full flower
4. Overview of the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve and the trail start in Poway, CA.
5. Coastal live oak and sycamore woodland along creek in Blue Sky reserve, note the lush growth of annual cotyledons and seedlings of grasses and chickweed.
6. California buckwheat (E. californica). Lots of new and old dried flowers
7. California wreath (Stephanomeria diegensis)

Other resources for Southern California Phenology and wildflowers

Santa Monica Mountains
Plants of San Diego County
San Diego Natural History Museum Field Guide