Around the Garden

Sightings & notes from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

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A Budding Relationship

My attention, of late, is on buds. Most plants have set their next-year buds by end of summer, if not earlier, so we can observe them all winter long and note what happens in spring. Think of this: a bud is a tightly enclosed package of primordial leaves and/or flower parts!

(From top to bottom: Paw paw buds—a leaf bud at the tip of a branch, and flower buds along the stem; Bigleaf magnolia flower bud; and Smooth sumac leaf bud, showing the heart-shaped “scar” from last year’s leaf)

Long fascinated by the engineering feat represented by a plant bud, I am watching the changes that buds undergo this time of year—changes in color and size. As days grew longer and warmer (with a lot of variability in the latter), flower buds on red maple trees became redder and larger. I hear that red maple flowers have already begun to burst and are open for business—that is, pollination with the assistance of wind.

Yesterday I discovered that the slender buds of our local trout lilies (Erythronium umbillicatum) are now opening to reveal their yellow flower.

Observations on the timing of seasonal, life-cycle events in plants—such as first flowering, first fruit, leaf drop—are known as “phenology.” There is a wonderful opportunity for you to contribute your observations on plant phenology to a citizen science project called Project BudBurst ( Since 2007, Project BudBurst has engaged citizens in making observations of local flora. Participants can choose species growing in their backyard or community and enter observations of phenological events into a web-form connected to the BudBurst database. Apparently there are now about 13,000 participants representing all 50 states!  Perhaps you’d like to be one and build your budding relationship with plants?

—Laura Cotterman