What is Phenology?

PussyWillow

Pussy Willow, March 2015

Everyone knows the saying about March – “In like a lion, out like a lamb”. And then there’s the other saying which is very common here: “Christmas in clover, Easter in snow”…

These are some of the ancient proverbs passed down through generations, sometimes over hundreds of years, that show us the link between seasons and climate. They may have shifted slightly over the centuries, or have moved due to changes in our calendar (or indeed climate), and some may no longer ring true, but they can be as precise as any long-term weather forecast.

But what is Phenology?

“Phenology is the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate.”

(Source: naturescalendar.org.uk)

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“Oak before ash, we shall have a splash

Ash before oak, we shall have a soak”

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Phenology is much more than a few proverbs or rhyming weather predictions; observing nature in the form of weather patterns or plant and animal behaviour provides surprisingly accurate information on when to sow, plant, transplant or even prune. According to phenological observations the flowering of the Forsythia for example is an indication that the ground has warmed up enough to plant peas.

Forsythia2014

Another example of this is that potatoes can go in the ground as soon as the first dandelions have opened.

ScillaThe first pollen, the first flight of bees and butterflies, the emergence of leaves on the trees, or the first appearance of migratory birds can vary by weeks each year, and can thus give a far more precise insight into the conditions prevailing than the normal calendar. For vegetable growers the phenological calendar provides helpful insights – such as not to sow your beans until the lilac is in full bloom – but it is of interest to me for estimating when annuals can be sown or planted out, when the spring tidy-up is due, or if bulbs can still be planted in autumn.

Every gardener can benefit from closely observing nature and interpreting its signals – not only for better results, but simply for pleasure too. Watching out for butterflies and bees or the first snowdrop are things many of us do already.

A bit of history

In 8th century Japan the emperor’s experts in Kyoto began recording the beginning of the cherry blossom season; the flowering of the cherry was considered an important symbol of the reawakening, fragility and transience of all life and is today still celebrated with extravagant ceremonies and festivals.

Hiroshima1993

Shukkei-en Garden, Hiroshima, 1993

 

 

However, it was not until  the 18th century that a European began to take down similar records; Robert Marsham, a wealthy landowner from Norfolk, began to catalogue consistently first flowering dates (such as snowdrops), insect activity,  seasonal weather and temperature changes, tree foliation, crop growth, and the first sightings of butterflies and migrating birds. (His family continued this tradition until the mid 20th century.) In the meantime Carl von Linné, the Swedish botanist, had started a network in Sweden with 18 stations and a German institute in Mannheim began an international project. By the late 19th century Germany was  keeping consistent records with a researcher called Hermann Hoffmann calling for Europe-wide data to be brought together in one databank.

WildFlowersMay2014

The world wars in the first half of the 20th century ensured that phenology did not lose importance, since feeding the nation had become a matter of survival and any phenological guidelines considered helpful for growing crops were given priority. This trend continued after the war, when food was still scarce and agriculture was trying to catch up. But with the onset of new production methods and chemicals in agriculture the records were gradually phased out in the 1960s and were only revived in the 1990s when talk of global climate change emerged: Canada, the UK and the USA were some of the first states to revive their phenological observation networks at this time.

AppleBlossomApril2012

Today phenological observations are not only of interest to agriculture however… the tourist industry is keen to be able to predict, for example, the famous cherry and apple blossom season in Hamburg, and hayfever sufferers can benefit from knowing when certain pollen is likely to be in the air.

Spring2013Hazel

In Bavaria over 250 volunteers (1,200 nationwide) collect data for the German Meteorological Service (Deutscher Wetterdienst), which recognizes not just four seasons, but TEN, beginning with the production of the hazel flowers and ending with the dropping of the larch needles. I will post about each of these ten phenological seasons tomorrow, so I hope you’ll stop by to take a look.

Do you use old proverbs to help you in the garden?

Interesting links:

The USA National Phenology Network

ATTRA National Sustainable Agriculture Informaton Service (USA)

Nature’s Calendar (UK – Woodland Trust)

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UK)

 

The International Year of Soils

Did you know that 2015 has been designated International Year of Soils by the United Nations?

Logo of International Year of Soils 2015

I was a bit slow reacting to this, but then I finally got round to reading a few articles about it. And they got me thinking…

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“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
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SOIL

DIRT        EARTH

MUD     MUCK

COMPOST

It is under our feet, maybe covered with concrete, gravel or tarmac, but it is everywhere and we rarely give it a thought. Okay, if you’re a gardener then you probably do think about it. You think about it being acid or alkaline, sandy or clay, stony, rich, poor, fertile, compact, organic and maybe a few more adjectives spring to mind. But on a grander scale what about soil erosion or desertification, contamination and pollution, soil degradation, increased salinity, soil management in developing countries…?

The aim of the IYS is to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions

Raising awareness is only the first step. After all, we are all very aware of global climate change and yet our governments still refuse to sign this or that agreement, to invest more in renewable energy, or to reduce subsidies for blatantly environmentally-damaging products and processes. But it is an important step as, at the end of the day, it is down to individuals to bring about change.

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“The fate of the soil system depends on society’s willingness to intervene in the market place, and to forego some of the short-term benefits that accrue from ‘mining’ the soil so that soil quality and fertility can be maintained over the longer term.”

Eugene Odum (US biologist known for his pioneering work on ecosystem ecology)

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The next stage promoted by this awareness campaign is to educate people about how important soil is for our ecosystems as a whole and how it affects not only our health, but also our economic welfare; sustainable soil management is the practical form of this educational process and must be invested in – worldwide – with the support of government policies and protective legislation.

The EU – after many years of deliberation – still does not have a cohesive soil governance policy, relying only on environmental policies and legislation of member states. Do we need a single policy? Or should soil governance be a regional issue? After all, the effects of poor soil management can have global repercussions…

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One square metre of rich soil can harbour as many as 1,000,000,000 organisms, including nematodes, bacteria, slugs, insects etc

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I Heart Soil English Image - Small

In Germany I have only been able to find a few events taking place to celebrate the Year of Soils – mostly rather dry-sounding lectures in distant cities.  But I have found a few links to interesting sites. In particular this one: http://saveoursoils.com/en

Please take a look at it. There is a wealth of information here, with some great short videos and a list of things you can do to help;

Buy organic

Garden organically

Eat less meat

Compost

Look out for more information and pass it on!

(e.g. Write a blog post about it, however long or short, or simply add a couple of links to interesting articles or videos)

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Did you know that earthworms can deposit up to 10 kilos per square metre per year of valuable worm droppings in the soil?

(Neither did I! 😉 )

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“We are able to breathe, drink, and eat in comfort because millions of organisms and hundreds of processes are operating to maintain a liveable environment, but we tend to take nature’s services for granted because we don’t pay money for most of them.”

Eugene Odum

Here are some other links. There really is so much information online, so this is just a selection of what I found recently:

Earthworm Society of Britain

Global Soil Week

Video “Support World Soil Day”

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification

The International Union of Soil Sciences

http://www.soilassociation.org/internationalyearofsoils

 So, have I got YOU thinking too now? I do hope so!

Germany’s “Flower of the Year” 2015

Photo Courtesy of Loki Schmidt Foundation - Flower of the year for 2015

Photo Courtesy of Loki Schmidt Foundation – Flower of the Year for 2015

Every year an endangered wild flower is chosen by the Loki Schmidt Foundation in Germany, with the aim of raising awareness to it and its habitat.

Some of my favourites have been chosen over the years; Hepatica nobilis in 2013, Cichorium intybus in 2009, Cardamine pratensis in 2006, Caltha palustris in 1999 and Pulsatilla vulgaris in 1996 – to name just a few.

This year the chosen flower is a close relative to one I have growing in my rockery, and is not only one of my favourites – the insects, bees and butterflies love it too.

Succisa pratensis

SuccisaPratensisMoench

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

The above photo from Wikimedia Commons is the Succisa pratensis, but all the following photos are of its close cousin Succisa inflexa, a cultivated version that is extremely happy in my well-drained soil despite supposedly being a moorland, heathland and riverbank plant. The pale blue to violet flowers of this perennial herb appear from July onwards and can still be seen in the south of Germany growing wild. But the in the north this plant has become very rare due to loss of habitat: drainage of damp meadowland for agricultural or building purposes along with the over-fertilisation of fields have led to its decline.

My Succisa inflexa ‘Frosted Pearls’ is very pale, almost white with an icy violet tinge…

Succisella

The common name, Devil’s-bit, actually refers to the roots that die off at the end and look as if they have been bitten off. Succisus is in fact latin for “bitten off below”. In the same family as Scabious, folklore claimed that the devil bit off the Succisa roots in his anger at them being used (apparently succesfully) for treating skin disorders.

I must admit I haven’t inspected the roots of mine, but will definitely take a look this year as they are spreading rapidly, just like Scabious, and some will have to be uprooted.

Succisella

Succisa flowers are an excellent source of nectar for bees and butterflies, and the plant is also a food source for some caterpillars…

Succisella5

This is a Summer Map (Araschnia levana) butterfly, photographed in 2012…

Succisella and Butterfly

You can read more on the English Wikipedia page about the Flower of the Year Campaign here.

Seeds can be ordered here: jelitto.com

or here: beehappyplants.co.uk

And I also posted about this plant way back in August 2012, here.

Is there a wildflower in your region that is threatened? Which one would you choose as a “Flower of the Year” in your country to raise public awareness to it?

Butterfly Bounty

I saw this lovely short video on the BBC website the other day… take a look, it’s beautiful!

Butterfly Bounty

ButterflyBounty

And a couple of other links too:

BBC Nature: Butterflies Bounce Back

BBC Nature: Bill Oddie and an English Meadow

I haven’t seen any butterflies yet – much too early here. Have you?

Germany’s Flower of the Year 2014

Every year the Loki Schmidt Foundation, based in Hamburg, chooses a wild flower as Germany’s “Flower of the Year”. The idea behind this campaign is to draw attention to and to protect endangered flowers and their habitats. 2013’s flower was one of my favourite wild flowers – the Hepatica. Liverwort (Hepatica nobilis) grows profusely in our region and I love seeing the little blue flowers in late winter, signalling the beginnings of spring.

This year’s flower is, however, unknown to me. Maybe you have heard of it?

Butomus umbellatus

(also known as flowering rush or grass rush)

ButomusUmbellatus1

(All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One of the German common names is Schwanenblume – “Swan flower”…

ButomusUmbellatus2

Apparently this has become invasive in parts of North America, yet it is struggling here. This flower loves water, and is found in areas that flood regularly. I don’t think it grows near me, but on the edges and inlets of the rivers Rhine, Elbe or Oder it finds the warmth and damp it loves.

I think it’s really pretty, don’t you?

ButomusUmbellatus3

I’d love to hear if you know this flower!

Links:

Wikipedia (English): Butomus umbellata

Wikipedia (German): Butomus umbellata

“Blume des Jahres” (Loki Schmidt Foundation) (German)