Cherry tree

An ornamental cherry, Prunus virginiana, breaking bud in early April in Wisconsin.

Gardeners tend to be keen observers. We watch for the first emerging bulbs in spring, check daily on our ripening tomatoes so we can harvest them at their peak, keep a close eye on the weather so we can protect plants if a late frost threatens. If you enjoy observing the natural world, you might enjoy contributing to Budburst, a network of people across the country who monitor plants as the seasons change and submit their observations to the project’s web site.

Budburst is an example of a citizen science program, in which ordinary people collect data and contribute to ongoing research projects, helping scientists collect much more data over a much broader geographic area than they would be able to on their own.

Participants collect data on the timing of leaf emergence, flowering, and fruiting of plants in a specific location, following guidelines that ensure consistent information collection across the country. Budburst volunteers help scientists learn more about plant life cycles, and the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate on a local, regional and national basis. Currently being used by scientists and educators, the data is free to anyone to download.

Get Involved

Small oak leaves in spring

Tiny oak leaves emerging in May in Vermont.

As a Budburst volunteer, you choose a specific plant and submit observations, such as the date the first flower opens or the first fruit ripens. Some volunteers provide a single observation; others monitor a plant throughout various stages of its life cycle.

The website offers helpful instructions to ensure accuracy, such as, “Report the date at which the first flowers are completely open. You must be able to see the stamens among the unfolded petals.”

Using the Data: The National Cherry Blossom Festival

One of the best parts about participating in Budburst is knowing that the information you collect is put to practical use. Data collected by volunteers in one project is helping researchers make recommendations about the timing of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC, for example. The festival has traditionally taken place during the first two weeks of April, but in recent years the trees have been blooming earlier in spring, so that by the time the parade that highlights the end of the festival rolls around, the cherry blossoms are past their peak bloom. More than a million people from around the world visit Washington, DC, each year to enjoy the blossoming cherry trees, so it’s important that event planners have the best data available to them when they schedule future events.

If you’re inspired to put your observation skills to good use, visit the Budburst website.

Suzanne DeJohn
Gardener’s Supply