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Project BudBurst Welcomes Citizen Scientists

text by Erin Leitner

project budburst

Mayapple is one plant tracked through Project Budburst.

Plants turn subtle moments glorious with color. When green tips appear on the trees, we anticipate spring around the corner. When reds, blues, pinks and purples burst forth in the flowerbed, we welcome summer fun again. And we sigh in relief of scorching heat when red, orange and yellow foliage surrounds us. Throughout the year, we glance at plants for the confirmation of the season; but what would they tell us if we looked a little more intently?

Project BudBurst is a nationwide campaign that looks to plants for environmental information. This online network asks any willing participants to track and report phenological changes in their locales, such as leafing out, flowering and fruiting. The data collected is posted and viewable for everyone interested in the bigger picture of phenology, or the study of the timing of biological events in relation to the seasons.
The campaign aims to educate people on the importance of plants and how they are affected by environmental changes.

Project BudBurst, founded in 2007, is co-directed by the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Since it is so young, scientific conclusions cannot be made with its own data as of yet, but interesting findings have been made with comparisons of statistics. One such discovery suggests that spring arrives increasingly earlier each year in Chicago. Project BudBurst’s recent data (2007–2010) from the Chicago area was compared to Plants of the Chicago Region (editions published 1950s–1994). The co-principal investigator at Project BudBurst, Kayri Havens, compared the recorded phenophases of 14 different plants. She noticed that seven of those plants had an earlier bloom date on Project BudBurst’s records than the earliest recorded bloom date in Plants of the Chicago Region. Some bloomed up to two or three weeks earlier. This finding has drawn interest in Project BudBurst from botanists and ecologists from many different organizations, including the Smithsonian Institute.

Project Budburst wants citizen reports on any and all plants, but it has targeted 10 plants in specific: common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), forsythia (Forsythia ×intermedia), chokecherry (Prunusvirginiana), black cottonwood (Populusbalsamifera), red maple (Acerrubrum), red osier dogwood (Cornussericea), red columbine (Aquilegiacanadensis), spiderwort (Tradescantiaohiensis), Virginia bluebells (Mertensiavirginica) and mayapple (Podophyllumpeltatum; shown). These plants are targeted because of their nationwide presence and their ease of identification. A large number of reports on these plants can give some more precise findings about widespread climates.

The recording and reporting process is very simple and self-explanatory. There is also a wealth of educational materials, downloadable forms and even a mobile-phone app to make continuous and single reports to Project BudBurst easy. The study of plants is the avid gardener’s forte; why not observe your plants for science? Learn more and sign up at

Image credit: Kathryn8 / iStock / Getty Images