Horticultural News -- Citizen Scientists and Invasive Plants

January 10, 2013, Updated March 5, 2013.

Horticultural News of 2012

Horticultural news rarely makes our local papers. One nearly has to stumble across these humusy morsels of information much as one would in search of mushrooms in a woods, tripping over logs, slogging through swampy parts and sometimes going home empty handed. As my Dad told me long ago, you have to look where they are (supposed to be). The American Gardener Magazine has been my starting point for information for over a decade. One theme consistent within their section 'Horticultural News and Research Important to American Gardeners” each issue has to do with initiatives involving the people as citizen scientists. Information collected is input through the various organization's websites. The goal is to make the date available to all for the betterment of our ecology, that is, the health of Earth. Below, I list a few opportunities available that a gardener, performing services as a citizen scientist, might find interesting and helpful to us all in a larger sense.

Citizen Scientists

Climate Change Although the subject of climate change is still hotly debated, more studies are being initiated to study the effects to ecosystems of climate change, invasive species and shifts in biodiversity. The National Science Foundation is funding ($434 million) the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) for the next 30 years to collect data on 500 climate and ecological related variables from 20 different continental regions, including Hawaii and Caribbean islands. NEON is a comprehensive network of professional and citizen scientists. As a citizen scientist, one can participate in Project Budburst, observing and reporting (download your mobile app!) on the various phenophases of plants on their master list, or other plants you might choose. Phenology is the branch of science concerning the biological events in plants and animals such as flowering, leafing, hibernation, reproduction, and migration. Scientists who study phenology are interested in the timing of such biological events in relation to changes in season and climate. Their website contains all the resources the citizen observer needs to participate (http://neoninc.org/budburst/getstarted_budburstobserver.php). Ordinary gardeners can join in determining whether climate is changing enough to effect plant growth or not.

NEON website also includes an online NEON Citizen Science Academy to help implement citizen science in educational settings. A new online academy is scheduled to begin January 29, 2013 and is partnered with National Geographic FieldScope platform. Information gathered through the NEON project will be published and available to all on its website, www.neoninc.org.

Still another opportunity for citizen scientists has open up. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is enlisting the aid of volunteers across the U.S. And Canada to measure and report precipitation amounts, because “rain doesn't fall the same on all.” Originally started at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, news of the program spread to encompass most of North America. The data collected will be used to verify daily forecasts, identify patterns, flood potential, and other trends. CoCoRaHS website provides training for volunteers. All volunteers have to have is a regulation 4 inch rain gauge, available for purchase at a discount. Other really cool weather monitoring stuff is available their store.

Local Opportunity. A local opportunity to provide information about native plants and animals is available at Wildcat Bluff Nature Center, here in Amarillo. Wildcat bluff is inviting the public to observe, research, document by photos, publish and edit the information on their website, www.wildcatbluff.org. Visit their page about the Adopt a Species Program.

Invasive Plant Issues

Invasive plant species introduced into native environments haven't caused as much debate as climate change, but it certainly has caused great disruption in local ecologies throughout the world. What's Invasive, Community Data Collection enlists citizens in reporting invasive plants by making geo-tagged observations. A use of an Iphone or Android app is available.

Texas citizen scientists/gardeners may choose to sign up to detect and report findings to TexasInvasives.org, an organization coordinated by the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. Free online training is available before one begins. Nearly 50 chapters, or satellite groups are located around the state, including a small cadre of local citizen scientists in the High Plains Invaders satellite.

The National Park Service also enlists citizen scientists to detect and report on invasive plants within park boundaries, in the hopes of retaining their native ecologies. Additionally however, the National Park Service offers a much larger program to observe plant and animal phenology (the timing of biological events in relation to changes in season and climate).

On another note, a website launched in 2012 is www.invasiveplantatlas.org. The purpose of the Atlas is to assist users with identification, early detection, prevention, and management of invasive plants. The Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States is a collaborative project between the National Park Service, the University of Georgia Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health, the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The focus is on non-native invasive plant species impacting natural areas, excluding agricultural and other heavily developed and managed lands. Four main components are species information, images, distribution maps, and early detection reporting procedures. The Invasive Plant Atlas is one step in the effort to combat invasive species, preserve our natural landscapes and the native plants, animals, and other creatures that inhabit them.

Further, on another note within the topic of invasive species reported in the May/June 2012 issue of the American Gardener, Kudzu bugs (Megacopta cribaria) were introduced from Asia in 2009. An examination of numerous Google references does not indicate if they were introduced on purpose to feed on the Kudzu vine, their host plant, a highly invasive plant in the Southeast. Whether or not they hitched a ride on a jet and disembarked at the Atlanta airport as some think, Kudzu bugs have spread through Kudzu country. Kudzu bugs have started to bug people by swarming in mass in residential areas, releasing an unpleasant odor when crushed. While they don't bite or sting, it's been observed (by citizen and professional scientists alike) they also feed on other legumes, including soybeans. Farmers in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, North and South Carolina are alarmed as the bugs appear to spread rapidly. As always, the introduction, whether on purpose or accident, of alien and exotic plants and animals often have an undesirable affect on natural ecosystems. One report noted that researchers are experimenting with a tiny Asian wasp that lays its eggs inside the kudzu bug eggs.

Further, a study conducted by the US Forest Service found “while the number of native species is largely controlled by natural factors such as area and temperature, exotic species and exotic fraction are predominantly influenced by social factors such as human population,” published in NeoBiota in early 2012. We certainly have seen this scenario played out in North America, with the first visits to our continent, visitors and settlers brought along their favorite plants. As settlement spread, so did these exotic invaders.

Angie Hanna

Information garnered from The American Gardener magazine and websites noted.