History

Carolus Linneaus
Photo: Wikipedia

The word phenology comes from the Greek words "phaino" (to show or appear) and "logos" (to study). Phenology is one of the oldest branches of environmental science, dating back thousands of years. Observations of phenological events have provided indications of the progress of the natural calendar – when seasons begin and change – since pre-agricultural times.

Many cultures have traditional proverbs and sayings which attempt to forecast future weather and climate using phenological observations: "If oak's before ash, you're in for a splash. If ash before oak, you're in for a soak". But the indications can be pretty unreliable, as an alternative version of the rhyme shows: "If the oak is out before the ash, 'Twill be a summer of wet and splash; If the ash is out before the oak, 'Twill be a summer of fire and smoke." While phenological observations may not let you predict the weather from one season to the next, they can be used to identify climate trends over decades and centuries.

The Chinese are thought to have kept the first written records of phenological observations dating back to around 974 B.C. And for the past 1200 years, the Japanese have recorded observations of the timing of peak cherry blossoms.

In Europe, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) systematically recorded flowering times for 18 locations in Sweden over many years. His meticulous notes also recorded the exact climatic conditions when flowering occurred. Linnaeus, and a British landowner, Robert Marsham, share the honor of being considered the ‘fathers' of modern plant phenology.

Robert Marsham
Photo: Nature's Calendar UK

Marsham could be considered one of the first citizen scientists in modern times. He was a wealthy landowner who kept systematic records of "Indications of spring" on his estate in England. Marsham's observations were in the form of dates of the first occurrence of events such as flowering, bud burst, and emergence or flight of an insect. For generations, Marsham's family maintained records of phenological events over exceptionally long periods of time, eventually ending with the death of Mary Marsham in 1958. The records of the Marsham family showed trends that were observed and related to long-term climate records.

By participating in Project BudBurst, you are contributing to this long established history of phenologists. You also join a legion of citizen scientists across the world and through the ages that are helping to understand changes in plants over time.