Take youth outside and become tree detectives

Trees are mostly commonly identified by their leaves but how are they identified in the winter? It is still possible with some easy investigations youth can lead!

Winter is a time for families and friends to get together and to enjoy outdoor activities in the snow. Building snowmen and snow forts with your children or grandchildren, taking them sledding or skiing followed by a hot cup of cocoa are all traditional family winter activities. But when you live in Michigan, you know the weather changes fast! There may be snow one day that is gone the next.

Here is a great outdoor winter activity you can do with young people that is not dependent on snow. Take youth to a nearby park or woodlot and have them become tree detectives! Ask the youth, how do we identify trees? The most common answer is by their leaves. But how do we identify trees in the winter? To do this, we need to do some investigations.

First, look at the location of the tree. Is the tree located on an upland or in a lowland area? Does the surrounding area appear dry? Is it in a wetland area? Is it an understory tree, or is the tree canopy up high and above other trees? What is the general shape of the tree?

Next, take a look at the bark of the tree. What do you notice? Do you see different patterns, textures and colors? Do you think trees with similar bark patterns, colors and textures are the same species? Did you notice that some trees have deep furrows and ridges, and some have plates? Did you discover trees with very shaggy bark and others with very smooth bark, trees with very tight bark and trees with loose peeling bark? Encourage the youth to feel the bark with their hands to get a sense of the different textures. You can also have youth do a bark rubbing by placing a sheet of paper over the bark and rubbing over it with a pencil. Be sure to hold the pencil on an angle and not straight up to get the best effect.

Another helpful indicator can be the scent of the tree and bark. Scratch off some bark and take a sniff of the inner bark. Can you smell anything? The inner bark of the sassafras tree has a spicy scent, while yellow birch smells like wintergreen and wild cherry has a bitter almond scent.

To continue with your investigation, examine the twigs of the tree you would like to identify. Does the twig have a terminal bud - a bud at the very end of the twig? Are the lateral buds opposite of each other or in an alternate position? Not very many trees have opposite arrangements of buds and leaves. Think of the term ‘MAD Horse Bucks’ to help you remember which trees have opposite buds and leaves: maple, ash, dogwood, horse-chestnut and buckeye. Are some buds bigger than others? Do the buds have scales? What color are the buds? Look closer and you will discover that the leaves, which dropped in the fall, left scars on the twig. What is the shape of the scar?

Last but not least, look around you! Do you see any fruit on the tree? Or do you see any fruits or nuts on the ground around the tree? You probably will also find fallen leaves on the ground, which will help you identify the tree.

If you need further assistance, there are many resources available on the internet to help you to identify trees in the winter. You can find a dichotomous twig key online and a non-technical winter key to 50 trees that leads you step-by-step through the identification process. Just go outside and give it a try!

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success.

To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read the 2016 impact report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

Michigan 4-H has many 4-H science programming areas for youth to explore. Science is everywhere with many questions to ask and discoveries to be made. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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