Roots and Shoots: Plant a Tree for Science

By Pamela Doan

Thinking of planting a new tree this fall? Consider doing it for science. The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) is looking for volunteers to plant a cloned lilac Syringa x chinensis ‘Red Rothomagensis’ or dogwood Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring’ and then monitor their behavior as part of a national project. Volunteers can sign-up and receive saplings that are either free or low-cost to plant in their landscapes. Detailed planting instructions are provided.

lilacs

One way to identify lilacs is by their leaf shape. The cloned lilacs have heart-shaped leaves, unlike this one. (Photo by P. Doan)

Once the tree is in the ground, volunteers are asked to observe its growth cycle. The online form notes emergence of leaf buds, leaf growth, flowering, and leaf fall, among other things. It’s a simple and easy process that can have a big impact for research.

It’s part of the USA-NPN’s project, Nature’s Notebook, intended to bring together observations of plant and tree behavior from anyone who wants to contribute their time and energy. Researchers, scientists and regular folks who are willing can sign up on their website and track information about the plants, trees, wildlife and insects.

Observations can include first emergence in spring, last sighting in the fall, and bud burst. The information is used to make decisions about land use, track the impact of climate change, and it is analyzed by scientists as part of larger projects.

The cloned lilac and dogwood project is a specific study, but many plants and wildlife are tracked through Nature’s Notebook website. Do you notice when the first robin arrives in your yard every year? Share the information here along with thousands of other people across the country.

For the cloned lilac and dogwood project, it isn’t enough to submit observations about the lilac or dogwood already growing in your yard. The idea behind using a cloned tree is to rule out genetic differences that could influence the growth cycle. Since the region for the dogwood study covers roughly thirty states, spanning from the northeast to the southeast, it’s the only way to tell for certain that the local environment, not genetics, affects leaf emergence, for example.

It’s important to note that cloned plants are not the same as genetically modified plants. A cloned tree comes from grafting roots and rootstocks and is a commonly used technique, especially with fruit trees. Rest assured, you won’t be introducing a Franken-tree into your landscape. The Cornus florida dogwood is native to this area and the Appalachian Spring cultivar has the advantage of being resistant to a common dogwood disease, anthracnose, which can kill the tree if it isn’t noticed early. It’s a beautiful tree that’s beneficial to the birds and bees, too.

While the lilac isn’t native, it has naturalized in our area and doesn’t have a negative impact on the landscape. It’s interesting because it has other medicinal uses and maybe you can include aromatherapy among its attributes because it certainly has a wonderful fragrance when in bloom.

Phenology, the study of annual events in the life cycle of plants and wildlife, is an important tool in understanding the impact of our changing weather patterns and temperatures. Research has shown that apple trees in New York are blooming eight days earlier on average than they were 30 years ago, as one example. On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. Just because the trees bloom doesn’t mean that the rest of the ecosystem is in place to support the next step – pollination.

Earlier bloom times mean that the risk of frost damage can be higher, too. The milder winters that lead to these early bloom times affect the soil temperature and microbial activity. Each step of what amounts to the production of food by the apple trees is connected to something else.

Even if you’re not shopping for new lilac or dogwood, consider joining up as a citizen scientist and sharing your observations. It isn’t even necessary to record every aspect that is collected either, just a few areas could be an enormous assistance. For more information, visit the Cloned Plants Project on USA-NPN .

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