Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Start of the 2012 phenology year

A pocket of eastern skunkcabbage - an early sign of spring in many eastern forests

Welcome to a new season for Project BudBurst! Like many of you in northern places, I can't wait for spring to start, and to see those first colors of spring! Up here in Colorado we do not have too many signs of spring right now. Actually the only sign of active plant life I saw the other day, were some watercress plants growing in an irrigation ditch . You could see the bright green leaves, floating on the water, photosynthesizing away. What a great adaptation. Here it is barely above freezing during the day, snow has been on the ground for over a month, but right at the level of the water it stays right above freezing so these plants can grab some CO2 and make some oxygen and get a head start.

Across the country spring is well underway. We have been getting all kinds of reports of flowers and leaves emerging in the southeastern US and California, and should be getting reports further north any day now. Eastern skunkcabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) is now a Project BudBurst species and we have had reports of it flowering more than a month ago in the south. Look for it soon in the eastern US, along with other early wildflowers.

The strange world of Skunkcabbages...

Skunkcabbage is quite an interesting and bizarre plant. It gets this name from the fact that when damaged it gives off this strong musk like odor which it uses to attract pollinating insects, which respond to smells from decaying animals or plants. It is part of a largely tropical family (the Araceae) that includes many common house plants such as Philodendron, and are generally called "Arum" lilies. Jack in the pulpit is another Project BudBurst focal plant that is a member of this family. They have a large colorful fleshy leaf like structure (the spath) that usually wraps around the flowers which are located on a spike like structure called the spadix. The western species has a bright yellow spath, in the eastern one it is an interesting speckled red and green color. Like its tropical cousin the vodoo lily, eastern skunkcabbage generates its own heat (up to 85° F above outside temperature!) so can flower even when the ground is still icy, and can survive temperatures down to -10! Flowers emerge first, leaves come out later. In some species insects can become disoriented once entering the flower leading to them sliding down the inside and pollinating the flowers. Some skunkcabbages can have giant tropical like leaves, and have the unique ability to grow in swampy areas where most plants have difficulty extracting vital nutrients like nitrogen. These plants can actually pump oxygen into the area around their roots so that they can pull these nutrients out from these water logged soils. They have oxalate crystals in their leaves making it very painful to try to digest bites of leaves, keeping omnivores like us away! But at least in the West I know they are favored food for deer, and bears love to dig up their roots first thing in spring too. So they are quite amazing plants, and good ones to watch in the spring. Where they occur they are a good sign that spring is on its way, since they generally start growing soon after the soil thaws, and often before the snow is even gone.

Around here the first thing to bloom will be the silver maples and red maples. Right now you can see the swollen flower buds, so they will be ready to go once the right combination of warmth and daylength occurs.

Good time to submit your 2011 data!
As we mentioned in our newsletter this month, now is a great time to send in the last of your observations for Project BudBurst from last year. Next month I will report on the data that was submitted last year. It was a record year with many new people making observations and great success with the single observation protocol which we launched as part of "fall into phenology".

Where is your closest cherry tree?
We plan a big campaign this spring to encourage volunteers to make observations on flowering cherries, so now is a good time to start seeing if there are any cherries in your yard or your neighborhood that could be used for this national campaign. One of our high priority species, chokecherry is often planted as an ornamental so should be easy to find if you do not see any of the wild native species nearby. The ornamental one is usually called "Canada Red". It sends out typical whitish flowers in the spring, and green leaves, but then the leaves turn red after they mature later in the spring (Prunus virginiana 'Canada Red').

Big Scientific Discoveries Come from Amateur Observations of Phenology!

Its been an exciting time to be interested in tracking and learning about plant phenology. Many new studies are being published now which use Project BudBurst data directly, or use data just like what we are collecting in Project BudBurst. I was just at a conference in Montana where we discussed the many new discoveries coming from plant phenology studies. All this reinforces the importance of all this great data Project BudBurst volunteers are collecting.

Good consistent data on first flowering or peak flowering dates is showing big changes across the country wherever there is good historical data to compare with it. One of the most well known recent examples is from a series of studies by a scientist working with Acadia National Park up in Maine, Abe Miller-Rushing. He has published a wide range of papers over the past several years on how observations on flowering dates can be used to better understand climate, and adaptation of these plants (or lack of it) in the face of changing weather and climate. One of his most interesting series of studies involved looking at how Thoreau's observations of first flowering dates of hundreds of plant species around his beloved Walden Pond in the mid 1800's are now being compared with modern observations in the same area. His studies provide lots of great ideas for interesting questions to ask and learn about with our Project BudBurst data. For me the most compelling is the idea of using our observations to learn how adaptable our plants are to changing weather and climate. As you may have noticed in your area, it is common to find some plants flower just about the same time every year, regardless of changes in weather, and others vary widely in when their flowers emerge depending on weather conditions that spring or winter. Studies from Walden Pond are showing that plants that flower the same time each year tend to be less common than they were in Thoreau's time. Similar observations have been made with bird species. So phenology data like what we gather in Project BudBurst may provide critical information for scientists, land managers, and conservationists in better understanding the adaptability of wildflower species, and species to watch more carefully in the future.

So what kind of spring can we expect this year? 2011 was a wild weather year, it will be interesting to see what happens this year and how our plants respond to it!

Paul Alaback

More on studies of Thoreau's woods and wildflower phenology

More on ecology of eastern skunkcabbage (see article by K. Thorington)

Photos of skunkcabbages: forest preserves near Rheinbeck, NY (Paul Alaback)
Chokecherry from western Montana (Paul Alaback photo)

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