Conifers in the snow

by Ana Maria Caballero McGuire, Children’s Education Fellow

February 8, 2016

Conifer Path in the snow

Conifers in the snow

Samples of conifer branches, needles, and cones? Check. Science experiments that demonstrate conifer adaptations? Check. Packet of resource materials for teachers? Check. Seven inches of snow? Yes!

On Saturday February 6th, Boston teachers ventured down Conifer Path in search of a variety of evergreen trees. Armed with information about the reproductive structures of conifers, it was amazing to see how quickly teachers found both male and female cones. No matter that the trees were covered in snow; once you know what to look for, they are everywhere!  On the spot, quick dissections of fallen female cones often revealed the seeds within, some big and heavy compared to other papery thin winged seeds. Even the Dawn Redwood, without its needles (or perhaps because of it), revealed its distinctive chunky small round cones.

In an effort to understand some cone adaptations, teachers had earlier experimented with cones in water to see how scales react to moisture. This allowed for the creation of a pretty neat pine cone hygrometer! It also helped us understand the mechanism for seed release in dry, warm weather.

Turning our attention to broadleaf evergreen and conifer needle adaptations, educators learned that both shape and its waxy coating, called cuticle, are important for moisture retention. Teachers also practiced identifying some pine species from the number of needles in their fascicles – 2 scotch, 3 pitch, 5 white – and touched other needles to find the friendly, flat firs and spiky, squared spruces.  Other conifer leaves called scales were intriguing to examine, due to their shape and coloring.  At times, teachers wondered if what they were looking at were scales or needles, such is the variety of conifers that defy clear distinctions.

During the walk back to the Hunnewell Building, teachers also observed the way in which many conifer tree shapes and branching patterns help them to shed snow as compared with deciduous trees.  Indeed, the recent snow storm served as an unexpected “guest speaker” during our monthly Arboretum For Educators exploration.

Join Exploring the Arboretum for Educators on Saturday, March 5 as we look for signs of the new season.

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