PlantWatch

by Cauleen Viscoff

(previously published in the Peterborough Examiner)

Now that the weather is softening, and we are convinced that spring really is around the corner, there are reasons to herald its arrival other than with Easter eggs, birdsongs and flowers to pick.

There is a little-known group of folks around the world who are quietly making a difference. They are monitoring birds, insects, frogs and plants. Recording the blossom times of some plants are good indicators of climate change. We all know that our climate is making some subtle as well as some not-so-subtle changes – some better and some not so much. So what does watching plants have to do with climate change?

Plant-watching has a long tradition and a rich history throughout the world. In 1750, the Swedish scientist and artist Linnaeus, turned plant-watching into a systematic science. He made calendars of flowering times for 18 places in Sweden, noting the exact climatic conditions at the time of blooming.

This became the foundation of modern plant phenology (the science dealing with the influence of climate on the recurrence of such annual phenomena of animal and plant life as budding and bird migrations- Dictionary.com). Phenology then spread to many European countries and revealed, over the centuries, that some spring wildflowers are super-sensitive weather instruments.

More than 100 years ago in Canada, Nova Scotia’s superintendent of education, Dr. Alexander H. MacKay, had students collect plant, animal, agricultural and weather phenology from 1897 to 1923. And then, in 1987, the Alberta Wildflower Survey started up and blossomed (pun intended) into a program that initiated the Alberta PlantWatch. This program then spread back to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and now today, PlantWatch is part of our national Nature Watch series of volunteer monitoring programs designed to help identify ecological changes that may be affecting our environment.

There are PlantWatch programs in each province and territory.

PlantWatch enables “citizen scientists” (volunteers gathering research for scientists) to get involved by recording the flowering times for certain selected plant species and reporting these dates to researchers on the PlantWatch website. When the data is submitted electronically, it is instantly added to web maps showing bloom dates all across Canada … So those observations make a difference right away!

The collection of that much data across the vast expanse of our country would be impossible for the small existing group of scientists presently working in this field.

As Canadians, we are fortunate to live in a country with such a wide variety of plant species. By participating in PlantWatch, we can learn about our country’s great botanical diversity and at the same time, help scientists track the effects of global warming and climate change in Canada.

The plants chosen for this program bloom every spring, largely in response to rising temperatures. However, some species are flowering almost a month earlier than they were a century ago!. Some of these plants you are familiar with and grow in your own yards and gardens. Poplar, Common Purple Lilac, Dandelion (bet you have lots of those..), Red Maple and Trillium are just a few.

Scientists believe that climate change is affecting bloom times – a trend that is continuing. They predict that the greatest increases in temperature will be in Western and Northern Canada, while some parts of Eastern Canada may actually be cooling (although last summer was hotter than ever).

By reporting on the PlantWatch species found in our local communities, we can help researchers discover how common plants are responding to climate change, and track where those changes are taking place in Canada and at what rate.

And now, for the first time in Canada, the PlantWatch program has partnered with the Master Gardeners of Ontario. We are excited about our potential contributions to science because we believe that observing local plants can be fun, but more importantly, the data we collect can serve a greater purpose by assisting scientists, land managers and those responsible for our natural resources to help in the environmental decisions they will need to make both now and in the future.

We urge you to join us in making a difference. You don’t have to be a professional, or even a gardener.

Take a look at the website; the plants are described in detail with glorious photos. Gather up your your children, grandchildren, friends and neighbours – sign up, get outside and watch spring happen – make your observations and”¦.make a difference.

Peterborough gardener Cauleen Viscoff, PlantWatch co-ordinator, Master Gardeners of Ontario Inc., can be reached at plantwatchontario@gmail.com. For more information, visit www.naturewatch.ca

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