Have you noticed that some trees seem to hold on to their leaves throughout the winter? We often notice how the golden and coppery colors stand out among the surrounding bare trees or against the backdrop of green conifers. It’s common especially for oaks, American Beech and Witch Hazels.
Now is the perfect time to take notice of which trees and shrubs still have dried leaves or flower corollas clinging on, before the new spring growth casts them off. And because there are a limited variety with this trait, these trees should be fairly easy to identify.
Next time you are out, take notice of the trees and have fun pointing out any marcescent ones you see.
I recently learned of the book Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast and was instantly intrigued. Jumping off from my children’s natural curiosity, last spring/summer we began a concerted effort to identify the trees of our neighborhood. Even with the leaves it can be a tricky task. Could one really identify trees by their bark? Yes! However, it is a challenge and truly a skill to be developed over time. My family and I will definitely continue familiarizing ourselves with the characteristics of tree bark. For right now, I was still wanting some easier way to distinguish the deciduous trees in our yard this winter. So I set out to find a simpler way. We started with trying to identify trees by the silhouette. That sounded simple enough. Is the overall shape round, broad, or oval? Do the branches reach up to the sky or droop? Are they graceful or curly? But there were so many variations among even the same species in our neighborhood due to outside forces (crowding, pruning, storm damage, etc.). I felt my children might get frustrated. So, we decided to look at a closer level: The branches themselves.
source: About Education Forestry
I first educated myself on twig anatomy. Here are some helpful resources: Books
Once I felt confident enough with the basics, I collected some twig samples from around our yard. Note: make sure that you choose a twig sample with all the anatomy features that you want to focus on. There can be inconsistencies among branches of one tree. I made sure that I chose both alternate and opposite branch samples with clearly visible buds. I then set up our table with my children’s nature journals, art supplies, magnifying glasses, and twig samples. I also had the reference books close at hand. We started by observing and comparing samples from just two different trees (oak and maple). My children were eager to make their sketches but first we spent some time making observations and sharing them with one another. Once they started sketching they became aware of even more details. Some energetic and enlightening conversations followed as they shared their new observations. They started hypothesizing about what the various markings they were noticing could be. They asked great questions and continued discussing as they sketched. I encouraged further exploration with “Why do you think…” and “I wonder…” questions. Then we opened the guide books and my children labeled their sketches. At this point they still didn’t know what kinds of trees the twigs had come from. I asked a series of questions that helped them determine what they were looking at. Here’s what that looked like: Guidebooks were used for reference but the questions were modified to pertain to our particular samples. For example, some maple buds may be more elliptical in shape rather than globular and blunt. I’m really so glad that we started with tree’s twigs and buds. Now wherever we walk we find ourselves looking up to determine a tree’s twig anatomy! We just can’t stop… If you try this activity with your children, we’d really love to know. Tell us about it in the comments or over on Facebook.
Before you go, here are a few tree books that your children may enjoy:
My family enjoys a fairly relaxed pace of living so the holiday season can often feel a little more hectic than what we are use to. I love the holidays and our additional activities are usually fun stuff but it’s still… more. Is it the same for you? This month’s ‘Nature by the Numbers’ journal prompts focus on slowing down and taking the time to quietly observe. Click the image to download a printable copy.
It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, cloud watching is always a fun activity and observing cloud formations is a great way to learn about weather patterns. To explore clouds a little more, here are some wonderful resources:
Sketch the clouds you observe in your nature journal. Be sure to add a description of each cloud and make a note of what the weather was like when you saw each cloud. If conditions do not invite sitting outside to do so (right now in Maine it’s 25 degrees) it can easily be done from inside. Just find a comfy spot near a window. For an additional activity you can even trace the clouds right on the window.
With the foliage gone on deciduous trees, it’s easy to see the various branching patterns. Take a close look at the trees you have chosen to observe. Do the trunks split at any point? Do the branches form deep “Y”s? Do the twigs grow alternate, opposite, or whorled? For more winter tree silhouette fun, check out these links:
We’ll be exploring how to identify winter trees in a future post where there will be lots more information and resources…
Moon Shadow Spotting
The December full moon occurred on the 6th so the moon is waning with the new moon happening on the 22nd. To see some moon shadows you had better do it soon! If it just doesn’t work out, try again in January. Mark your calendars for moon spotting on the 4th.
Image sources on printable