Prairie Word of the Day – Phenology

Hello, and welcome to the fifth edition of the popular series, “Prairie Word of the Day.” This is the series that has previously brought you such inspiring words/phrases as Tiller, Habitat Heterogeneity, Disturbance and Shifting Mosaic of Habitat. Thank you for the many cards and letters expressing your gratitude for the explanations of these words, and suggesting future topics.

Today’s featured word is Phenology. In short, phenology is the study of the timing of various events in the lives of plants and animals and the factors that influence that timing. Phenology should not be confused with Phrenology, which is the long discredited study of how the shape and size of the human skull supposedly correlates with character traits and mental capacity. Phrenology has been used to bilk people of their money, support racist and sexist stereotypes, and bolster Nazi eugenics. Let’s not talk about that today.

Phenology, without the “r”, is a complex and important topic in ecology. You might hear someone talk about the phenology of plants related to when they begin emerging from the ground, when they flower, and when they begin to wilt and senesce at the end of the growing season. Additionally, however, phenology includes the timing of the emergence of insects from dormancy or their final molt into adulthood. It also includes the timing of animal migrations and hibernation, as well as many other events in the lives of myriad organisms.

This bee (either Melissodes agilis or M. trinodis) is a specialist feeder on sunflower pollen and is only active during the period of summer when sunflowers are blooming. If the bee emerged before sunflowers started blooming, it might not find anything to eat.

The factors that influence a species’ phenology often include temperature, light, and moisture – in combination with genetic signals. We still have a lot to learn about the phenology of most prairie species, especially in terms of how they might adapt to changing climate. In fact, rapid climate change has brought much recent attention to phenology because changes in the flowering time of plants, for example, have already helped illustrate the occurrence and impacts of climate change. In addition, there is great concern that species may not be able to adapt the timing of their lives quickly enough to match the changing climate, and/or that timing of interdependent species might not remain synchronized. For example, flowers might start blooming before or after their particular pollinators are active, or birds or insects might migrate to breeding areas before food is available at those sites. A couple years ago, monarch butterflies arrived in Nebraska way ahead of schedule, but fortunately they were still able to something to eat and lay eggs on.

When monarchs arrived in Nebraska much earlier than normal, dandelions were one of the few abundant wildflowers for them to feed on and they laid eggs on whorled milkweed because common milkweed hadn’t emerged yet.

Here in Nebraska, we got some interesting insight into the phenology of plants during 2012. The year ended up giving us the most severe single year drought in recorded history and it started out as a year of extraordinarily warm temperatures. In fact, spring and summer temperatures arrived so early that we recorded many plant species blooming weeks or months ahead of their typical schedule. I wrote a short blog post about this back in May of 2012 and a number of people from around North America responded with their own sightings. The observation that stood out most to me was the blooming of asters in May. I had never seen heath aster (Aster ericoides) or New England aster (Aster novae-engliae) bloom before late August or September.

Phenology is also important to land managers trying to sustain biological diversity in prairies. For example, around here, we are constantly fighting cool-season invasive grasses. The growth period for those species starts earlier and ends later than that of most native prairie plants. That gives us some opportunities to use herbicides to kill or suppress smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, or other invasive grasses when the chance of harming other plants is very low. In addition, we can use prescribed fire, grazing or mowing to target those grasses when they are most vulnerable. For example, we might try to burn a prairie right as those species are starting to bloom because it wipes out those plants’ entire season of energy investment in growth and flowering. The fire doesn’t kill those grasses, but it can knock them back enough to allow other plants – especially those just starting their growth periods – to flourish while the vigor of the invasive grasses is low.

We timed this burn to suppress cool-season invasive grasses, which were just starting to bloom. After the fire, many warm-season grasses (and other plants) responded quickly because they were just beginning their period of most active growth.

Timing of burns can also be aimed at suppressing many other kinds of plants. For example, we sometimes try to burn prairies when encroaching trees are just leafing out and highly vulnerable. Alternatively, burns can be timed to limit impacts on animal or plant species. That might include strategically scheduling a fire based on the emergence of rare insect species or before sensitive reptiles become active in the spring. Prescribed grazing can be employed in much the same way – strategically moving livestock in and out of an area to suppress the growth of particular plants or to create desired habitat structure prior to the arrival or emergence of particular animal species. In all these cases, land managers are acutely aware of the phenology of the species they are trying to suppress or assist.

If you’re someone who enjoys keeping track of when things happen each year, you might enjoy joining a citizen science effort to document changes in the phenology of many different phenomenon. You could start at the National Phenology Network and peruse some of the options they provide. Or, if you already have years of field notes that document when you see your first bumblebee, prairie clover flower, or grasshopper sparrow each year, I’d encourage you to contact a local expert on that/those particular species and let them know about your data. You might have information of great value to conservation.

Introducing: The Prairie Word of the Day

I’m sure many of you are as tired of this blog as I am.  The same old nature photos, natural history, prairie management/restoration information…  It just drones on and on.  Honestly, I don’t know how you manage to drag your eyes through most of my posts.  How much prairie stuff can one person read about, after all?

(…Yes, I’m kidding – there is no limit to how much prairie information one person can read about.  And I am not at all tired of this blog… though you certainly might be, I don’t know.)

Well, the blog isn’t going away anytime soon (why, what have you heard??)  But in an effort to keep it from growing stale, I’m introducing a new feature called “The Prairie Word of the Day.”  …Yes, I know –  a titillating title, isn’t it?  It ought to be, it took me about three months to refine it.  It’s pithy, catchy, and descriptive all at once.  Or at least descriptive.

As with any field, prairie ecology is full of jargon; words that make sense to those of us who spend most of our waking hours thinking about prairies but make no sense to anyone else.  I try hard not to use to much prairie jargon in my posts, but I slip up now and then.  Sorry about that.  There are a lot of fun, but confusing, prairie jargon words out there, so I thought I’d highlight one now and then and try to explain what it means.  I would love to hear nominations from you as well – what undecipherable words do I or others use when talking or writing about prairies?

Ok, without further ado, the inaugural Prairie Ecologist Blog Prairie Word of the Day is:


Sure, everyone knows what a tiller is, right?  You use it to prepare your garden for planting.  Or, if you are a pirate, you might use it to steer your ship.  (If you are a pirate and read this blog, PLEASE let me know.  Prairie-loving pirates is a demographic I would love to reach out to.)

However, if you are REALLY into prairies or botany, you might be familiar with a third definition; one that is related to grasses.


Although it is used somewhat inconsistently, a tiller usually refers to the aboveground shoot of a grass.  In other words, if you were to look closely at a grass plant you’d see that most of them have multiple stems at their base.  Each of those stems is a tiller.  Usually, the term tiller only applies to shoots that emerge from buds at the base of other tillers, not from seeds.  Thus, when a grass seed germinates and starts to grow, the first shoot that pops out of the ground is not a tiller.  It’s just a shoot.  I guess.  But after that, every new shoot that comes out of the ground from that plant is a tiller.

Tillers are primarily important, as far as I can tell, because professors like to make graduate students count them.  As in, “Hey Sara, take this 1 x 1 meter plot frame out to that prairie, lay it down and count the number of grass tillers inside it. (snicker)  Then do that 99 more times. (guffaw!)  Then we’ll move on to the next prairie.”

Grass greening up in the Derr Sandhills about a week after a prescribed fire.

The tillers of this bunchgrass are all bunched together.


A related botanical prairie word is “sward” which basically means a bunch of grass.  Well, not really a “bunch” because that’s its own term (grasses like little bluestem are called bunch grasses because they grow their tillers tightly together and look neat and tidy, as opposed to grasses such as prairie sand reed that across the prairie like they own the place).  A better way to describe a sward, then, is that it’s an area of grass.  However, I don’t think there’s any restriction on how big that area of grass has to be, which makes the term less useful.  That’s probably why you don’t hear it used very often.  Except by grassland poets trying to rhyme something with “charred”.  As in, “Lo, the land was black and charred.  No trees remained throughout the sward.”

There are an awful lot of tillers in this sward.  Too many to count - even for a graduate student.

There are numerous tillers in this sward. Too many to count – even for a graduate student.

If botanists were funny, they might say something like, “Arrr, Matey!  Take over the tiller smartly while I decide whether to shoot this lubber or run him through with my sward.”

(I’m kidding, of course.  Botanists can be very funny.  Sometimes on purpose.  Also, many are quite hirsute.  Except on top, where some are pretty glabrous.)

Well anyway, that concludes the first ever installment of The Prairie Word of the Day.  I hope it was instructive.  Please nominate terms (in the comments section below) you’d like to see included in future Word of the Day posts and I’ll try to use as many as I can.