“Everything seems to be blooming early this year,” has been a common observation over the last month. I’ve made it and so have many of my friends and colleagues. But memories, especially casual observations from a year or more ago, can be tricky. That’s why many people who are interested in plants – gardeners, farmers, beekeepers, scientists, and many others – will often record when they see key events such as the first blooms, first leaves, first fruit, etc.
Decades of records that have been kept on all kinds of different plants by people all across the country show a significant trend. Many plants are blooming earlier. I’m not talking about just compared to last year either. There have always been and will always be odd years where plants bloom slightly early or late. The trend that is being seen compares the blooming period of plants now to their blooming period two to three decades or more ago.
Temperature, in one way or another, is often a key factor in triggering a plant to bloom. Gardeners and farmers who keep up with the USDA plant hardiness zone maps know that in 2012, Kentucky was reclassified from zone 6a / 6b to zone 6b / 7a. The USDA plant hardiness zone maps are based on the 30-year average minimum temperature for a location. Based on the reclassification, it only makes sense that many of our plants would bloom earlier because it isn’t getting as cold as it used to and it is warming up faster in the spring.
However, many pollinators rely on other triggers to become active or to migrate back from their wintering grounds. Often those triggers are something like day length which doesn’t change from one year to the next. In the long run, this could lead to a major problem – plants blooming because they received the correct temperature triggers before their pollinators become active. The result would be little to no pollination and thus very low fruit or seed production for those plants. Ecologically, a situation like that could set off a whole cascade of impacts that go beyond just the pollinators.
Recording when you see different species of plants blooming and the pollinators you see using them can be a valuable pastime for anyone interested in plants and/or pollinators. Over time, you’ll develop a detailed record of when the plants around you tend to bloom and when your favorite pollinators are most active. You’ll also be able to detect trends such as earlier blooming of certain species, increasing or decreasing numbers of your favorite pollinators, or correlations between when a given plant blooms and when your favorite pollinator enters an important phase of its life cycle.
There are multiple ways that you can track when the different plants in your area are blooming. The simplest is to write it down in a journal. A more high-tech way is to participate in a citizen science project like Project Budburst.
Project Budburst is an online, national research project that tracks when plants do things like start to flower, leaf out, produce fruit, or lose their leaves. People from all over the country enter their observations about what the plants are doing in their area. The great thing about a project like this is that not only do you get access to your own observations, but you can also see what other people are observing too. In addition, your observations become data that scientists and other researchers studying plants and climate change can use to get a better understanding of how plants are responding over time and throughout the country.
No matter how you decide to do it, keeping a record of when plants are blooming in your area and the pollinators that visit those flowers is a good idea for anyone interested in Kentucky’s pollinators and the plants they use.