Loveliest of Trees
Mar22

Loveliest of Trees

Project Budburst: Cherry Blossom Blitz kicks off in the midst of an unusually early bloom. by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer IT’S the first week of spring, and Washington DC’s Tidal Basin is rimmed with snowy petals. Thousands of cherry trees bloom along the water – a week ahead of schedule. Hurried along by a streak of 80 degree (F) days and warm nights, the trees are in full bloom, the earliest since 2000, and petals will be falling by the time the centennial Cherry Blossom Festival* starts on March 24th. Much to the distress of festival organizers. A gift from the City of Tokyo in 1912, the cherry trees have brought out their spring finery around the 4th of April, give or take a few weeks, for 100 years. But a few weeks’ give is often too much leeway for the coordination of major city events, planned months in advance. The Washingtonian reported earlier this month that the city is expecting 100s of thousands of tourists, bringing 100s of millions of dollars, to arrive for the festival. So predicting the bloom is no trivial matter. Unfortunately, predicting it more than ten days in advance is entirely luck, according the National Park Service. Cherry trees are exquisitely sensitive to the vagaries of early spring weather. “This has been a wonderful learning opportunity. If the cherry blossoms don’t show up for their very own parade, people take notice,” said Sandra Henderson, director of the National Ecological Observatory Network’s (NEON) Project BudBurst. Festival organizers have sounded considerably more morose about this lesson than Henderson in the flood of recent news reports. But they are interested in different things. Henderson doesn’t have a festival to run; she just wants to map the blossoming of your backyard cherry to latitude, longitude, and date, with the option to cross-reference it to weather and climate trends. Henderson co-founded the citizen science project in 2007 with Kayri Havens-Young of the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Carol Brewer, emeritus professor of biology at the University of Montana (and now on NEON’s board of directors, among other activities). The project collects data worldwide. They’re interested in “phenology”: the study of seasonal changes and their environmental cues. The eponymous “bud burst” of new leaves unfurling on the branches of deciduous trees is one such phenomenon, or phenophase, “but don’t let our name fool you; we’re interested in plants throughout the year,” said Henderson. It’s just that “project leaf dye-off” didn’t have quite the same enticing cache. BudBurst records the first unfolding of leaves, stages of bloom, the pale green new needles at the tips of fir trees, showers of pollen,...

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