First Leaf, First Bud, First Fruit: Project Budburst

By May 9th, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Comment

Record plant observations and learn how changes in climate and habitat affect a plant’s lifecycle with Project Budburst.

Track the phenology of plants and animals with these citizen science projects.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst.

Participants record observations for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ward, of Project BudBurst.

Gardeners worldwide have their favorite sayings about when to plant, when to reap, how much rain is going to fall, or how dry it will be.  For example, according to one proverb, “If the oak’s before the ash, then you’ll only get a splash; but if the ash precedes the oak, then you may expect a soak.”  Typically tested by time, and cast over generations by people who till the land, they identify the prime time to sow or harvest. According to an English folk-rhyme, “After a famine in the stall, (bad hay crop) comes a famine in the hall, (bad corn crop).”  Endemic to regions around the world, the words often identify both the geographic locale and the season. Gardeners have not only learned the sign for a wet spring or a dry summer, but they also know that there is a connection between the first leaf, the first flower, the first fruit and the corresponding season. Scientists call the study of this timing phenology, and it is the primary concern of a public participation project called Project BudBurst (official site).

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst

Various methods of reporting for Project BudBurst. Photo courtesy of Project BudBurst.

Project BudBurst  is a national field campaign designed to engage the public in the collection of important ecological data about plant phenology. The project makes the data freely available so that others can make discoveries from it, and publish and write about what they find. Rather than looking for the next “big” thing, the team focuses their efforts on developing and building new and better tools, and opportunities for people across the spectrum, from educators and scientists to students and the public, to explore and engage with the data so that they can make their own discoveries. According to Sarah Newman, a citizen science coordinator with Project BudBurst, “Project BudBurst participants have been sharing their observations of plants with us since 2007. Most climate change studies need about 30 years of data to really start saying something concrete about the effects of climate change, so we have many years of data collection ahead of us yet. That being said, we are starting to see trends for some plants that show they are blooming earlier than was historically true.” One example reported in an American Scientist article records how a group of researchers modeled the timing of cherry-blossom peak bloom for trees in the Washington, DC region under various scenarios of climate change. Project Budburst data has also been used in a number of regional historical studies. Take for instance a 2012 study, in which data collected in the Chicago region was compared with records accumulated by botanists Floyd Swink and Gerry Wilhelm. “Swink and Wilhelm collected phenology observations from the mid-1950s to the early 1990s. Of the 15 local species for which we had good contemporary and historical data,” said the authors, “13 had an earlier first flower in one or more years between 2007 and 2012 than was ever observed by Swink and Wilhelm.” Operating within these timescales, the data begins to reveal the effects of climate change on plants.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

Learning about phenology. Photo courtesy of Carlye Calvin, University Center for Atmospheric Research, Project BudBurst.

An important element of Project BudBurst is science education. Dr. Sandra Henderson, the project director, enjoys working on Project BudBurst because it allows her to combine her background in biogeography and experience in developing climate change educational programs. When questioned about data verification—a common bugbear for volunteer-collected data, she said, “Traditionally, we had an annual ‘clean up’ of the data base by plant scientists associated with Project BudBurst. These subject matter experts helped in making decisions of what data would be shared each year. As our program has grown, this has proven to be somewhat inefficient. For future campaigns, we will be exploring online approaches to data verification.” Newman is also excited about Project BudBurst’s education initiative, which will facilitate data collection. “Just this week we announced our first cohort of Certified Instructors who will be able to offer presentations and workshops about Project BudBurst in their communities and local areas. Because our program is entirely online and we have a small staff, we are thrilled that these instructors will be able to create personal connections and offer in-person opportunities to engage with Project BudBurst across the country.” (You can learn more about these instructors here) A folk saying used in the Midwest goes like this, “When maples flower and woodchucks dig up the hillsides, ducks are scouting for nesting sites, and onion sets can be tucked into the garden soil.” As Project Budburst collects data to inform climate change studies, what happens to these sayings as phenology keeps pace? Do they migrate with the warming spring? Will this become a northeastern quote, or will it just fade into the mists of time?


Chung, U., L. Mack, J. I. Yun, and S.-H. Kim. 2011. Predicting the timing of cherry blossoms in Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic states in response to climate change.
PLoS ONE 6: e27439. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0027439

Images: Project BudBurst

Ian Vorster has a MS in Environmental Communications and most recently served as director of communications at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. Prior to that he worked in the health communications field. Ian has served as a designer, writer, photographer, editor and project leader in the field of science, and now works freelance in a blend of these roles. You can see more of Ian’s work at 

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