Are you suffering from phenology anxiety?
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.