Learning About Conifers

by Ana Maria Caballero, Nature Education Specialist
February 8, 2019

Teachers examine conifers outdoors

Learning About Conifers

The brutal cold brought on by the polar vortex lingered long enough to make it almost impossible to enjoy the Conifer Collection up close on Saturday, Feb 2. Instead, teachers attending the monthly Arboretum for Educators to learn about conifer adaptations spent time indoors with collected plant material.

The program began with a general introduction to the gymnosperms and an overview of the various divisions within, focusing on the Pinophyta, commonly known as conifers. Teachers spent extended time touching, smelling, observing and sketching the various conifer families: Pinaceae (pine), Cupressaceae (cypress), Taxaceae (yew), and Sciadopityaceae (umbrella pine). Special attention was paid to leaf shape – scale, needle, or awl – and leaf arrangement, along with smell and texture for help in identifying general characteristics of each family. There are two more families, Araucariaceae and Podocarpaceae, but they are not represented in the Arnold Arboretum collections since they are from warmer southern hemisphere climates.Identifying conifers

Next, teachers focused on several genera of the pine family that are commonly found in New England: hemlock (Tsuga spp.), pine (Pinus spp.), fir (Abies spp.), and spruce (Picea spp.). We are lucky in that the cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) is part of the Arboretum collection, so teachers also had access to that pine family genus as well.

One of the goals of the Arboretum for Educators program is to help teachers learn more about botany and local natural environments and then help them translate this information in ways that are student-friendly and engaging. So, teachers were delighted to learn that spruce needles generally have square cross-sections and are spikey to the touch, while fir needles are flat (do not roll between fingers) and friendly to the touch. Similarly, teachers were surprised to learn that conifers have separate male and female structures, and that these are found on different branches on the trees (male cones on the lower branches and female cones further up), or on different places along the branch.

A lively discussion ensued: what is the advantage for trees to keep their pollen structures low to the ground? A teacher noted this is the opposite of what happens with corn. Do conifers self-fertilize? Why are the arils of the yew poisonous – wouldn’t this prevent the species from surviving? These questions stimulate more questions and further observation and learning, precisely what we hope students to engage in as well!

Towards the end of our time together, teachers wanted to apply their newfound knowledge outdoors. We ventured around the Hunnewell Building, discovering and identifying many of the same species that had captivated teachers indoors. By modeling and engaging in outdoor learning as adults, teachers can become more confident in bringing student outdoors and open a whole new world for scientific learning.Teachers examine conifers outdoors

The Arboretum for Educators events aim to introduce seasonal natural phenomena to teachers and model ways in which students can engage in outdoor learning; teachers then are shown how to bring that learning back into the classroom for further investigations. Please join us at our next month’s event, Is It Spring Yet?

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