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Winterberry Lessons Learned By Katie Spellman and Christa Mulder


Melibee Project (2010-2015) and Winterberry Citizen Science (2017-2021)



University of Alaska Fairbanks


September 2010 - June 2021 


The University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Far North Phenology Network (FNPN) is aimed at tracking the phenology of boreal forest and arctic tundra plant species in a warming world. Phenology is the study of the timing of life events, and changes in the timing of the seasons has created new conditions and interactions for northern ecosystems that we hope to better understand through coordinated monitoring of plants. Two changes we focus on that motivated our berry monitoring projects, include the accelerating spread of invasive species in Alaska, and the changings in the timing of the growing season. Both of these could affect berry species important to people and wildlife in the far north. Berries are an important part of northern culture, recreation, and healthy diet. They also make up an important part of the diets of many boreal and Arctic animals, particularly in the late fall and winter months.  

Because berries are an approachable topic for youth, all the FNPN projects have emphasized youth engagement in environmental monitoring, and the process of learning, teaching and sharing knowledge across generations. Alongside land managers and adult volunteers, it has been educators, families, classrooms, youth camps and youth clubs who have contributed the bulk of the data collected in FNPN projects. 

Materials from two FNPN projects are presented here, one that supports monitoring of reproductive phenology of berry species from budding to fruiting during the growth season (Melibee Project), and a second that supports monitoring of berry abundance, condition and availability to animals in the fall and winter (Winterberry). 

The Melibee project had two primary objectives. First. to investigate timing of flowering in blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) and cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) across Alaska through a combination of volunteer observers and historical herbarium records. Second, to determine the extent of overlap in flowering times between these berry species and White Sweet-Clover (Melilotus albus), an invasive legume species that could alter pollination of the berry species. The interest in berry monitoring was high, and we developed a second program called Winterberry Citizen Science. The objective is to determine the effect of shifting timing of the seasons on the timing of fruit ripening, berry abundance, and berry condition (rotten, damaged, etc.).


For the Melibee project, the first objective was completed, and the results were published in peer-reviewed journal articles, as well as newsletters to the volunteer observers. The second objective is in progress; we continue to work on the assessment of flowering overlap and we refine our models. The Winterberry project has just started, and the first year of monitoring is not yet complete.  


We have used the data for publications and presentations. Volunteer observers have used their own data from the Melibee Project to determine the timing of when M. albusidentification and control will be most effective.  They can now predict when to send crews out to remove the invasive species from areas they are concerned about during the time of the summer when the control effort will have the greatest probability of success.


We developed a novel approach for scoring the phenophase (or stages in the berry life cycle such as bud, flower, unripe, ripe fruit) of a berry plant both in person, and on herbarium specimens. We also showed the importance and value of volunteer observers for a topic area where data is very limited (Spellman and Mulder 2016). 


Limited project staff and keeping up communications across all the observers is always challenging. We have learned that budgeting for a full-time coordinator would have been wise.


Our berry observing program is supported through 2021 by the National Science Foundation. We plan to build an enhanced data entry and visualization tool on our website to increase ease of submitting data, creating usable data visualizations, and sharing of information across communities. 


These protocols and materials focus on species chosen for specific research questions that also overlap with berry species of interest in Alaska. However, the same protocols may be used for any berry or fruit species in Boreal or Arctic plant communities.







Berry plants are marked with metal tags so that they can be tracked for several years. Photo credit: J. Shaw, UAF.

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