Why Watch Flowers?



Plantwatch is a program involving people of all ages as ‘citizen scientists’ to observe flowering times for selected plant species. They report these dates over the Internet or by mail.

This study of flowering times is called phenology. Collected over many years, these calendar dates provide information on average spring development time for different areas. They show us how spring timing is changing over the years and how living things are responding to climate change. For example, Plantwatch plants flower largely in response to temperature. After warm winters and springs they flower earlier than normal.

Why observe the flowering of plants?

Changes in flowering times are thought to be the most sensitive and simplest indicators of how living things are responding to climate change and increasing weather variability. Analysis has shown that early flowering years are linked to El Nino events, and a trend has been observed towards earlier plant development over the last 100 years in central Alberta. This matches trends to warmer January to June temperatures in western Canada.

Both plants and insects develop in spring in response to temperature. Higher temperatures mean faster development. The sequence of appearance of flowers is consistent from year to year, and a bloom date can be used to predict the appearance of an insect. Knowing valuable seasonality information such as timing of spring flowering helps decision-making for farmers and foresters, for example to correctly time operations such as planting, fertilizing, crop protection (integrated pest management) and harvest timing. It also is useful in wildlife management. The survival of deer fawns is greater in years with early spring arrival. In human health, pollen-warnings help doctors and allergy-sufferers, and for tourism, bloom dates can predict the best times to photograph flowers or animals, or to go fly-fishing.

By participating, observers have fun and learn about nature and biodiversity.

Where to Observe

It is important, where possible, to observe plants growing in a relatively flat area. Why? Plants on hills will get more or less sun depending on which way their slope faces. Plants on south-facing slopes receive more warmth from the sun and flower earlier than the same species in a cooler location. Plants on colder north-facing slopes flower later than the rest of the population. Click on the ‘Get involved’ folder for information on how to get started!

History of the Project

The National Plantwatch Program

Alberta Plantwatch is part of the national Canada Plantwatch program, a joint venture between volunteer coordinators in each province and territory, Nature Canada and Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network Coordinating Office (EMANCO). For more information, please visit http://www.naturewatch.ca/english/plantwatch/

The Alberta Wildflower Survey tracked 3 bloom stages for 15 native plant species 1987-2001, with the help of up to 200 volunteers annually across the province. In 2002 the Alberta species and phases (bloom stages) were modified and the survey renamed “Alberta Plantwatch”.

Alberta volunteers annually report flowering dates for one or more of 26 plant species. This data is useful to illustrate how earliness of spring varies between areas and between years.

List of plant species:

1. Aspen Poplar
2. Balsam Poplar(info to come)
3. Bunchberry
4. Choke Cherry
5. Cloudberry (info to come)
6. Common Bearberry
7. Common Dandelion
8. Common Purple Lilac
9. Common Yarrow
10. Early Blue Violet
11. Golden Bean
12. Labrador Tea
13. Larch (info to come)
14. Lingonberry (info to come)
15. Lodgepole Pine
16. Northern Bedstraw
17. Paper Birch (info to come)
18. Prairie Crocus
19. Purple Saxifrage
20. Saskatoon
21. Starflower (info to come)
22. Star-flowered Solomon’s Seal
23. Tamarack
24. Twinflower
25. White Dryad
26. Wild Strawberry
27. Wolf Willow

The plant species were selected because they are easy to recognize, have a  brief flowering period, and are widely distributed in the province. All are native plants, meaning that they were in North America before white settlers arrived, except for two species. These non-native plants are the garden shrub common purple lilac, and the common dandelion. They were included for Alberta Plantwatch because they are easy to find in our towns and cities and have a long history for flowering observations around the world.

In 1996 E. Beaubien also launched an internet-based program “Plantwatch”, using as indicators two native plants: prairie crocus and saskatoon, as well as lilac. It gathered flowering observations from schools, nature centres, and individuals across western Canada.

In 1997 the Plantwatch program expanded to add more plant species useful over a wider geographic area. Data was received from Alberta, Manitoba, BC, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Japan and Poland.

In 1998 wider data was received, from most of the Canadian provinces, Japan, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, and some data from the United States.

In 1999 data was received from the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and from the territory of Nunavut; from the states of California, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin; and from the countries of Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Norway, and Japan. Thanks to Saburo Funakoshi and his colleagues for gathering numerous Japan bloom data!

In 2000-2002 Canada Plantwatch expanded with assistance from Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network Coordinating Office (EMANCO).  Funding from EMANCO permitted E. Beaubien to select more plant species, revise the Plantwatch methods to match international standards, and write the background text for promotional materials. Regional Plantwatch coordinators were recruited (as volunteers) to represent and run Plantwatch in every province or territory.  The Canadian Nature Federation (now “Nature Canada”) partnered with EMANCO to promote Nature Watch programs across Canada.  It secured funding from Suncor and produced a booklet describing the program titled “Plantwatch: Canada in Bloom”. This information is also posted at www.plantwatch.ca in English and French.

In 2000 our Alberta webpage received over 400 bloom and leaf-out dates from 159 observers. Data came in from seven Canadian provinces, three Canadian territories and six American states. Overseas observations were reported from Japan, Germany, Norway, Poland and Slovakia.

In 2001 we added five new species to the Alberta plant list: dandelion, bunchberry, bearberry, Labrador tea and tamarack. On the Alberta webpage, over 570 bloom and leaf-out dates were received from over 240 observers! Dates were reported from seven Canadian provinces, three Canadian territories and six American states. Dates were also reported from Japan, Germany, Poland, Slovak Republic, and Italy.

HOME for the survey: Thanks to the University of Alberta for hosting the Alberta Plantwatch program!  For 1987-1990 it was based in the Botany Department, from1991 to 2003 at the Devonian Botanic Garden, from 2004-2005 in the BioSciences department, and since January 2007 in the Renewable Resources department (faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences).

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