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Counteract “Plant Blindness” with an On-Campus Phenology Trail

To shift ecology students from a focus on animals only to the plight of plants as well, Dr. Alisa Hove has them study trees on a one-mile stretch of track.


Alisa Hove, PhD

Professor and Chair of the Biology Department, Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina

PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, MA and BS in Biology

The daughter of an avocado farmer, Alisa Hove always loved plants, but it was during her undergraduate studies that they became her passion. That was when she began researching the pollination of the hummingbird trumpet plant by going into the field (literally) to collect fruits and seeds, then back to the lab to analyze the resultant data. “Seeing how [field] data and observations corresponded to scientific hypotheses was really foundational,” she says. It was so impactful that she went on to earn a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Today, as a professor and chair of the biology department at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, Hove feels strongly that biology and ecology students need to develop an appreciation for and an understanding of plants, too, in order to become well-rounded scientists. “I’m trying to address plant blindness, which is a condition that was first proposed in the ’90s,” she says. “Even though plants play these really key roles in our environment and our everyday lives, we’re so much more captivated by animals. If you show people pictures of an elephant on a savanna and ask, ‘What do you see?’ oftentimes they’ll say, ‘An elephant.’ People don’t see the plants that are all around it.”

Recently, Hove worked with collaborators at the University of North Carolina, Asheville; East Tennessee State University; and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, to secure a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new curriculum modules on plant science. This includes a unit on phenology—the observation of seasonal changes to living things, such as the leafing, flowering, and maturation of plants, the emergence of insects, and the migration of birds. She also was instrumental in the creation of a Phenology Trail, which Warren Wilson students use for field study.

“It’s a one-mile stretch of land on a very popular hiking trail on campus,” says Hove. “The goal of the trail is to set aside a space where various plant species can be studied as they go through their seasonal changes, allowing students to address important questions relating to evolutionary adaptation and how populations may respond to ongoing shifts in climate and land use.”

Hove maintains the trail with the help of research students, who have tagged 10 different species of deciduous trees, which provide plenty of seasonal changes to observe as they go through flowering, fruiting, leafing out, leaf color changes, and leaf drop. Below, Hove shares how she blazed this trail—and how other educators can do so too.

See resources shared by Alisa Hove, PhD

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“A key learning outcome in an ecology course is understanding the ways in which interactions with abiotic factors—such as temperature, topography, elevation, latitude, and soil chemistry—may affect living components of the environment. The Phenology Trail allows students to contemplate [these issues, while] providing them with exposure to collecting data and understanding how data is used. Making repeated observations at a given location helps students notice the subtle changes happening in the natural world.”

— Alisa Hove, PhD

Course: Biology 202 Ecology

Course description: Ecology is the study of interactions of organisms with one another and with the physical world. This course covers the ways in which individual species, populations, communities, ecosystems and landscapes are characterized and analyzed, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Some of the various factors that affect the number and distribution of organisms are explored through a combination of lecture and regular laboratory exercises.

Hove’s Phenology Trail and stewardship program

Ecology students at Warren Wilson College use the school’s Phenology Trail to gain hands-on experience with collecting and analyzing data. Students record their observations in a straightforward manner, showing exact evidence of given phenological phases, such as the percentage of leaves emerging in the spring. The data are later collated, tabulated, and sent to a public database. Here, Hove offers more details on these and other aspects of the project.

Find a phenology trail or blaze your own

Hove has found many helpful resources on the USA National Phenology Network website and on Nature’s Notebook, a key component of the USA-NPN. These sites offer information on the locations of active phenology trails, as well as tips on creating one from scratch. They even have a section called Nature’s Notebook Education Program, which offers resources to facilitate site-based education.

Introduce the trail as a pathway to addressing climate change

Early in the semester, ecology professors invite Hove to come into their classrooms, where she explains how the Phenology Trail can help us better understand the effects of phenomena such as climate change. “I think of phenology as the one fingerprint of how climate change is affecting natural systems here on Earth,” Hove says. “Scientists need to be able to identify species that are resilient to climate change and those that are more sensitive. The Phenology Trail provides a solutions-oriented approach.”

Make the trail manageable by divvying up the work

“Because collecting data on 35 trees is a lot of work, we divide the trail into chunks based on the landmarks that are present,” says Hove. Then students are paired up, assigned a particular length of trail, and told which two weekends of the semester they will be studying it.

Provide plenty of instruction on data collection protocols

“We have a three-hour lab each week where students develop field skills that relate to collecting and organizing data, then understanding how scientists use data to make arguments and support hypotheses,” says Hove. One of the most important aspects of her program is to ensure that all students understand and use standardized protocols for data collection.

“When you do coordinated research, the data have to be collected in the same way,” she explains. “We have photographs of the different phenological phases, such as ‘leaf out’ vs. ‘flowering’ vs. ‘fruiting,’ so students can compare what they’re seeing in the field with existing photos.”

Show students their work matters by posting it publicly

One of the reasons that standardized protocols are so vital for Hove’s project is because students finish their research by uploading their data to the Nature’s Notebook database. “It’s a Citizen Science portal,” explains Hove, “where people can sign up as data collectors. People share the data with this larger group. It takes a lot of data to figure out what’s happening. And our students have already contributed over 20,000 observations. Collectively, we’re making a pretty good impact.”

Hove has found that this Phenology Trail project does more than open students’ eyes to plant life—it also has a way of getting into students’ heads and hearts.

“One thing that has struck me is that students develop a strong sense of identity as a scientist. For example, one [student] said that they really liked walking around with a clipboard and collecting data,” says Hove. “When students are given some level of responsibility over the data they are collecting, it gives them a sense of ownership. It’s not just for the class—they’re contributing to our understanding of the natural world and to the greater good.”

Photo courtesy of Corey Nolen.

Leave a reply

Have you tried this in any classes you teach? Would you like to try it? Share your questions, critiques, comments, and insights below.

  1. This is a fantastic approach to learning. We have campus trails and this assignment would certainly take our field trips to the next level of awareness.

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