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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Phenology: Plantwatch and the Science of Spring

Air Date: Week of

Keeping track of nature's sense of timing is how the plants say "spring." Elisabeth Beaubien, a researcher based at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden, has one of the most unusual jobs you'll find; she directs a project that documents the arrival of spring. Now in its third year, Plantwatch is a network of student scientists and teachers who share their observations of the bloom dates of certain plants and then compile the info on a world wide web site. Ms. Beaubien spoke with Steve Curwood from Edmonton, Alberta in Canada.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Elisabeth Beaubien, a researcher based at the University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden, has one of the most unusual, and if you like plants you might even say one of the most enjoyable, jobs you'll find. She directs a project that documents the arrival of Spring. Now in its third year, Plantwatch is a network of student-scientists, and teachers, who share their observations of the bloom dates of certain plants, and then compile the info on a World Wide Web site. Ms. Beaubien joins us from Edmonton, Alberta. Welcome.

BEAUBIEN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: The calendar calls March 20th the Vernal Equinox, the start of Spring. But not for you, Elisabeth Beaubien, I mean not all the way up there in Edmonton. What singles the arrival of Spring for you?

BEAUBIEN: I call the biological beginning of early Spring for Canada the full bloom of the aspen poplar; in Latin it's called populus tremuloidis. Some people call it white poplar, some people call it trembling aspen or aspen poplar. It has quite a few names.

CURWOOD: Now, you expect the poplars to be out on what? March 25th?

BEAUBIEN: Well, March 25th is when they started to bloom in Edmonton back in 1992, which was our last El Nino event, and we had a warm spring, a dry spring, and that's what we're predicting for this year as well. So, I think that's probably when flowering will occur. But it does depend on how many Arctic systems slump down from the north and give us cool weather.

CURWOOD: Poplars are one of your indicator species. You've also chosen 2 types of trillium, or is that trillia? Common purple lilacs, and several others. If I were one of your citizen scientists, what would I do on an outing?

BEAUBIEN: Well, if you had a lilac that was in your neighborhood or near your house, but not too near to your house we want to make sure that the lilacs are at least 3 meters away from a wall of a building and the early lilac is recognizable before it leafs out. They're the old fashioned kind. They produce suckers, little shoots that come up around the base of the mother plant. And they have heart-shaped, smooth leaves, and they flower relatively early.

CURWOOD: So then what do I do?

BEAUBIEN: Well, once you've found your lilac bush, you can take a piece of masking tape and mark one of the branches with a number so you know that you're watching that plant as time goes by. Then keep an eye on the buds. First bloom means that half of the flower clusters have at least one floret or one bloom open, one of those buds is open. And then as the flowering continues and more flowers open, the date that you want to report for full bloom is when about 95% of the florets or little flowers are open, but not too many have withered.

CURWOOD: And it smells just wonderful.

BEAUBIEN: Oh, it does smell absolutely fragrant! That's the delightful thing about lilacs in the spring.

CURWOOD: Isn't that amazing? And I'm allergic to them.

BEAUBIEN: Oh dear!

CURWOOD: Yeah. Really. So every year I go out, I see them, I smell them, and then I sneeze! (Laughs) Now, what's the use of knowing that lilacs are blooming in Boston, or there's trillium that has sprung in the Sierras, or really that any of these have come out?

BEAUBIEN: There's lots of interesting ways that the information can be used, both in tracking response to climate changes or weather variability. But also another neat another way to use the information is in providing best timing predictions for agriculture and forestry. You see, the way it works is that plants and insects in the springtime are both responding to heat, and they develop in a certain sequence. So if you can develop the information, for instance, to say that when lilacs start to bloom, then this certain insect which is attacking your crop will be at its most vulnerable stage 6 days later, then that can help predict the best time to control that insect using an absolute minimum of impact on the environment, chemical and expense.

CURWOOD: How else might this information be used?

BEAUBIEN: Also, in medicine, say that you're someone who's wildly allergic to lilacs.


BEAUBIEN: Yes, well then you may want to know when they're going to bloom in your town so that you can be in Arizona that week and have a holiday somewhere different.

CURWOOD: And miss all the color?

BEAUBIEN: And miss all the color --

CURWOOD: Oh, no!

BEAUBIEN: Well, it would be a different color in Arizona. Or plus, if you're someone who needs to set the hunting quotas or is interested in just knowing how much wildlife there's going to be, or if you're a fly-fisherman. Well, knowing the flowering times and what the usual sequence is can tell you when that weekend is that you want to head out to that stream, because that's when the trout will be rising to your fly.

CURWOOD: Elisabeth Beaubien is a researcher at the Devonian Botanic Garden at the University of Alberta, and she directs the garden's Plantwatch program. Thanks so much for taking this time with us, Elisabeth.

BEAUBIEN: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: To learn how you can participate in Plantwatch, check out our Web page at www.livingonearth.org, and click on the lilac.



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