It is spring, it is spring! How do I know? I know that spring has arrived, because the red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) is blooming. Welcome to the world of phenology, where seasonal changes in the natural world occur in a fairly reliable sequence. By paying attention to these changes, we can learn more about climate change, and also match our actions to natural patterns. Seeing the Ribes sanguineum in bloom locally, I know that it is time to put away my snow pants and bring out my summer shoes. I also know it is time to start watching for the return of rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus), who will dart from one Ribes sanquineum flower to the next in an effort to regain the calories spent flying from Mexico to British Columbia.
The indigenous peoples of British Columbia were experts on phenology. The ethnobotanists Nancy Turner and Trevor Lantz describe some of the ways that these peoples used phenological observations to time resource-related activities in the paper, “Traditional Phenological Knowledge of Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia” (PDF). Turner and Lantz describe phenology as “the study of the seasonal timing of life-cycle events” that generally occur in a reliable sequence, and can therefore indicate when a harvesting or similar action should occur. For example, the Nlaka’pamux people used the blooming of wild rose (Rosa spp.) to indicate that soapberries (Shepherdia spp.) were ready to harvest. Also,Ribes cereum was used by the Nlaka’pamux to indicate that the steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were running.
I don’t do much fishing, and my berry harvesting is relegated to urban blackberries, but I think that I can still use phenology in my everyday life. Here are a few phenological indicators that could work in the modern day:
- Berberis (Mahonia) species are blooming: time to change winter tires for all-seasons
- Holodiscus discolor is blooming: time to purchase oscillating fans, before they are sold out at the hardware store
- Solidago species are blooming: time when it is not worth bothering to change out winter tires, if it has not yet been done
- Vaccinium ovatum berries are ripe: time to apply water-proofing spray to shoes and outerwear
On a more serious note, phenological data is being tracked by many organizations in an effort to keep tabs on changing climates and species diversity. In Canada, citizen scientists are encouraged to report their observations of blooming dates to the organization Plant Watch. Scientists have used this data to determine that some species are blooming a month earlier than they were a century ago. Similar organizations can be found throughout the world, and include the American Nature’s Notebook and the European Phenology Project, which encompasses data from many European countries.