You may see dandelions as nothing but a nuisance weed, and lilacs only as a familiar spring-blooming shrub while phenologists, those who study plant and animal lifecycles, analyze growth phases of these and other common plants as indicators of climate change.
But this type of research requires LOTS of plant observations—more than scientists could possibly collect themselves—so they're seeking help from parents, kids, grandparents, teachers, gardeners and nature enthusiasts.
They ask anyone interested in expanding a child's or their own budding curiosity in plants to join Project BudBurst, or its kid-oriented counterpart BudBurst Buddies. Both free, Internet-based campaigns explain how to watch and record phenophases such as first leaf, bud and flower; peak and final flowering; first ripe fruit; peak fall color and leaf drop for many common wildflowers, herbs, grasses, trees and shrubs.
The easy-to-follow programs encourage learning and outdoor activity. Participants find the longitude and latitude of their area, learn plant identification, and how to make phenophase observations that require outdoor sleuthing. Once observations are complete, participants record their findings online.
My own Project BudBurst observations identified significantly different first flower dates for a Connecticut native perennial, the Eastern Red Columbine. In 2009 this woodland-blooming plant first flowered June 8; in 2010 it first flowered April 20. Imagine the learning opportunities a resourceful adult could promote by asking youngsters to figure out why flowering or first leaf dates differ from year to year.
Inquisitive kids could further compare regional or national phenophase reports using previously documented and stored information from the Project BudBurst website.
My other phenophase observations include a Tulip tree, a purple-flowering perennial called spiderwort, and the woodland-growing Jack-in-the-Pulpit, in addition to dandelion, lilac and the aforementioned columbine. There are many others to choose from according to growing zone or state.
For example, Project BudBurst suggests 22 different plants for observation in Connecticut. Any one of these could become the focus of an inquisitive child needing an active and interesting spring vacation project. All it takes is a bit of adult guidance and signing up for Project BudBurst.
Joene Hendry shares more interesting information for Connecticut and other northeastern gardeners as well as her gardening successes and mistakes, fondly known as Gardening Oops or GOOPs, through her blog, www.joenesgarden.com.