Are you suf­fer­ing from phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety?

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY ME­LANIE CHOUKAS-BRADLEY Me­lanie Choukas-Bradley is au­thor of “City of Trees” and “A Year in Rock Creek Park.”

Are you suf­fer­ing from “phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety”? Chances are you’ve never heard the term. “Phe­nol­ogy” is an ar­cane word de­scrib­ing some­thing our for­ag­ing and farm­ing an­ces­tors lived and died by. It’s a branch of sci­ence deal­ing with the re­la­tion­ship “be­tween cli­mate and pe­ri­odic bi­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena (as bird mi­gra­tion or plant flow­er­ing)” or “pe­ri­odic bi­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena that are cor­re­lated with cli­matic con­di­tions,” ac­cord­ing to Mer­riam-Web­ster.

Take this quiz to see if you have ex­pe­ri­enced phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety:

1. Were you con­cerned when your al­ler­gies kicked in ear­lier than usual this year?

2. Have you been wor­ried about the cherry blos­soms that were blighted by early warm­ing and sub­se­quent cold?

3. Are you dis­heart­ened by the frozen brown mag­no­lia flow­ers in your neigh­bor­hood?

4. Do you won­der what the crazy weather ex­tremes will mean for your gar­den this spring or for sum­mer peaches at the farm stand?

If you an­swered yes to any of the above, you may be suf­fer­ing from phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety, a worry that nat­u­ral oc­cur­rences are se­ri­ously out of whack. Phe­nol­ogy is a sci­ence that is mak­ing a come­back be­cause of con­cerns about cli­mate change. You can be­come a ci­ti­zen sci­en­tist and con­duct phe­nol­ogy re­search in your own back yard.

The word was coined by a 19th-cen­tury Bel­gian botanist. The sci­ence has fo­cused on the first oc­cur­rences of nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena, such as the re­turn of mi­grat­ing birds and the ap­pear­ance of flow­ers and leaves. Ecol­o­gists use the term to re­fer more widely to the tim­ing of sea­sonal oc­cur­rences. Phe­nol­ogy has a deep anec­do­tal com­po­nent, based on the life-sus­tain­ing ob­ser­va­tions of plant for­agers, hunters, fish­er­men, farm­ers, gar­den­ers and nat­u­ral­ists and his­tor­i­cally passed down through the gen­er­a­tions in oral tra­di­tion and writ­ten form.

Our coun­try’s founders were farm­ers and thought­ful phe­nol­o­gists. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton recorded ap­pre­cia­tive ob­ser­vances of nat­u­ral oc­cur­rences in his di­aries, such as this one for March 26, 1786: “The warmth of yes­ter­day and this day, for­warded veg­e­ta­tion much; the buds of some trees, par­tic­u­larly the Weep­ing Wil­low and Maple, had dis­played their leaves & blos­soms and all oth­ers were swelled, and many ready to put forth. The apri­cot trees were be­gin­ning to blos­som and the grass to shew its ver­dure.” Thomas Jef­fer­son kept a weather di­ary for much of his life and en­cour­aged James Madi­son to do the same, ac­cord­ing to An­drea Wulf, au­thor of “Found­ing Gar­den­ers: The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Gen­er­a­tion, Na­ture, and the Shap­ing of the Amer­i­can Na­tion.”

I can date the on­set of my own phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety to New Year’s Day 2007. I was walk­ing in Rock Creek Park with my hus­band, Jim, on a day fol­low­ing a too-warm De­cem­ber that had brought forth Christ­mas daf­fodils. I was stopped in my tracks by some­thing that didn’t be­long: a spring beauty plant in bud. The spring beauty is a na­tive wild­flower that was bud­ding more than two months early.

Since that day, I’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to see­ing spring beau­ties make their first ap­pear­ances al­most any time be­tween Jan­uary and March, de­pend­ing on the in­creas­ingly er­ratic weather pat­terns that have come to char­ac­ter­ize win­ter and spring in Wash­ing­ton. I have faith that the spring beau­ties that bloomed dur­ing this crazy win­ter will reemerge now that our icy snow has melted. I hope the Vir­ginia blue­bells I saw bud­ding along Rock Creek be­fore our re­cent snow­storm will do the same.

On March 1, I led a tree tour at the Capi­tol grounds spon­sored by the U.S. Botanic Gar­den. A ven­er­a­ble star mag­no­lia was in full and fra­grant bloom on the south side of the Capi­tol. By the time we reached the north side of the grounds, we ea­gerly sought the shade of a south­ern mag­no­lia. It was 80 de­grees. Three days later, I led a sec­ond tour of the grounds. The petals of the star mag­no­lia were droop­ing and turn­ing brown, and no one in the group sought shade that day. The ther­mome­ter never left the 30s, and a fierce wind whipped across the Hill.

I’ve been vis­it­ing the Tidal Basin cher­ries for 40 of their 105-year his­tory, and I never wor­ried about them bloom­ing. I wor­ried this year. But I will go see the sur­viv­ing blos­soms. I’ve found that the most ef­fec­tive rem­edy for phe­nol­ogy anx­i­ety is to im­merse my­self in the nat­u­ral beauty in and around our city. The more in­ti­mately I know our wild back yard, the more deeply I ap­pre­ci­ate the de­pen­dence of trees, wild­flow­ers, birds and all flora and fauna on the end­lessly vari­able but so far re­li­able sea­sons. And with fa­mil­iar­ity comes the de­sire to pro­tect.


Cherry blos­som trees near the Tidal Basin on March 17. A re­cent snow­storm up­set the bloom cy­cle.

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