Festivals, festivals and customs change as the flowers fade in spring.
“I am looking for white neem flowers. Grinding the flowers with some soft neem leaves to make a chutney is an annual ritual during Gudhipadwa (the Maharashtrian New Year celebrated in late March or early April). But this year nobody has been found in the trees,” says Sai Girdhari, a 28-year-old botanist from Mumbai.
Girdhari is the project coordinator for Seasonwatch, a citizen-science initiative that invites people to record the arrival of flowers, fruits and leaves on trees around them. In the 10 years since the initiative began collecting this data, older evidence has pointed to changes in traditionally established patterns, she says.
In Kerala, fewer mango trees are seen at their peak flowering in April-May. According to 38-year-old ecologist Geeta Ramaswamy, program manager of Seasonwatch, the flowering of Palash (Flame of the Forest), which is used to make gulal during Holi in northern India, is also changing. Mahua trees in Madhya Pradesh are producing fewer flowers, while neem trees are blooming earlier than usual in Karnataka – ahead of the March-end Ugadi festival.
“There has been an overall increase in variability (in climate), meaning we get extreme temperatures and precipitation. This reflects in the phenology of trees – the patterns of emergence and maturation of leaves, flowers and fruits,” adds Ramaswamy, who holds a PhD in invasive species ecology from the Indian Institute of Science.
To collect more data, and help more citizens understand the relationship between seasonal patterns and foliage, SeasonWatch began hosting tree festivals in 2018. The ongoing edition of this quarterly festival ends today.
During each 10- to 15-day event, citizens across the country are invited to record observations about trees in their neighborhoods. This includes data on which species are flowering, which are sprouting new leaves; In which life like bird nests or caterpillars can be seen.
Data is recorded on the SeasonWatch website and app, and collated and tested in partnership with the independent research organization Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF); the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), which is part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; and with the support of Wipro Foundation.
The portal has so far recorded more than 6.11 lakh observations on more than 130 tree species, with most of these observations coming during the quarterly tree festivals. “We get more data during each 10-day festival than the rest of the year,” says Girdhari. “Databases can help with scientific studies. But the ultimate goal is to bring about changes at the policy level in the way we manage the factors that affect forests.”
Why might patterns change? Climate is a factor. Changes in groundwater levels, air pollution, water pollution, concretization and changes in land use patterns can also have an impact. and availability of herbivores, leaf-eating insects and pollinators, and soil-water-nutrient levels.
Studies elsewhere in the world have shown how changes in these patterns can affect the lives of dependent animals, and ultimately the food chain. For example, in England’s Wytham Woods, researchers at the University of Oxford tracked the habits of big tits for 60 years and found that new leaves were appearing on oak trees in early spring; The caterpillars that feed on them have appeared before. As a result, the large tits that feed on the nests of these insects changed their nesting time by about three weeks.
India is ready for such a study, says Ramaswamy. Changes in patterns have already had a cultural and emotional impact on humans. Indian laburnum or kanikona flowers are sometimes lost by Vishu, the Malayalam New Year in mid-April, “People have to buy plastic flowers for decoration during this festival,” says Girdhari.
The impact can also be financial. An unseasonal heat wave in late February and early March has affected Alphonso mango flowering in Maharashtra. Farmers have lost nearly three-fourths of their April-May harvest. In parts of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh, small mahua flower crops can affect the liquor, sweet and spice industries that depend on it.
In these areas, SeasonWatch is working with local NGOs operating in the conservation and agricultural space to validate submissions. In MP, for example, the non-profit Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) has verified that few flowers are blooming.
It will take decades to determine exactly why, says Suvimal Ghosh, coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Program in Climate Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B). “But the ways erratic weather can affect leaves are direct. Unseasonably high temperatures increase vapor pressure loss. It dries the air, which takes moisture from leaves and can cause water stress on trees. Unseasonably heavy rains can deplete nutrients.”
It’s important to get citizens involved, adds Ghosh. They have an important role in data collection. “Instead of scientists and government working in silos, we need to build more participatory frameworks to involve people,” he says.
In what seems like a good sign, large numbers of children are contributing data throughout the year and at tree festivals, some as part of their school account on the website, others independently. Among them, 18-year-old Jyotiradithya MA from Pinarayi, Kerala. There is a page dedicated to the dates when the first mango blossoms appear on a tree near her house.
This helps keep them young, adds Ramaswamy. “Then their relationship with nature will be less exploitative and extractive, and more one of conservation and wonder.”
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