Learning to read the story plants tell

Hi. I’m glad you’re back! The next two posts will provide some background on my research project. I’ll explain why I am monitoring plant development in relation to temperature changes throughout the summer and how this knowledge can help scientists better understand the potential of cold air pools to ameliorate warming for wildlife under climate change.

Plants are heralds of change. After a long winter golden daffodils raise their trumpets to announce the advent of warmth and longer days. In Autumn trees display their vibrant foliage as a last hurrah before shedding their leaves and hunkering down for the cold winter months.

We can decipher the story that plants are telling about our changing climate by monitoring their phenology, or key seasonal changes (e.g., flowering, leaf budding, pollen release) from year to year and their timing in relation to weather and climate. The earlier blooming of flowers such as honeysuckles and lilacs due to an earlier onset of Spring in the Sierras could mean limited nectar for pollinators such as butterflies and bees when these insects emerge, for instance.

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A pale swallowtail feeds on nectar from a Hartweg’s iris in the Inyo National Forest, CA

I spent some time this week in the field learning to read the story written in plants. Monica, Devils Postpile’s natural resource manager, showed me how to identify breaking leaf buds on green leaf manzanitas, estimate the number of male cones on a lodgepole pine, and assess the quality of flowers on wax currants. I could see that plants in cooler areas such as along a shaded stream were developing later than those in full sunlight. When it comes time to officially record data at Devils Postpile in a few weeks, I will be all eyes.

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A wax currant with clusters of flowers past their prime

I recorded my observations to Nature’s Notebook, an online national network of scientists and non-scientists who are working together to take the pulse of our planet. Scientists can’t be everywhere at once, so they are enlisting the help of thousands of citizens to monitor plant and animal phenology. Scientists are using these observations to piece together a story about how climate change is impacting different regions of the United States to make policy decisions.

Next time you’re out and about, spend some time getting acquainted with the plants you encounter and share the story they reveal about climate change in your backyard.

Featured image: Open male cones releasing pollen on a lodgepole pine

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