Kids & Nature Connections: Exploring evergreen trees with children

Submitted on Mon, 03/25/2019 - 09:39

This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in February 2018.

As busy as the holiday season can be, I always look forward to the quiet and hush of winter in nature. It’s a great time to get outside with your family and focus on something you might miss the rest of the year. 

Our evergreen, coniferous trees give us a bit of green all year round. And with a little practice, kids can learn to tell the difference and find out what these trees have to teach us.

So what is an evergreen, and what’s a conifer?

Washington is called the evergreen state for a reason. We have about 18 different species of native evergreen coniferous trees, 15 of which live in our area. These include Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, western red-cedar, and grand fir, among many others. (Find a full list at www.wenatcheenaturalist.com/conifers.)

An evergreen is a plant that keeps green leaves all year long. Evergreen can describe a tree, a bush, or other plant. A conifer (or coniferous plant) is a plant that produces cones to carry its seeds. Their leaves usually look like needles or scales.

Most conifers are evergreens, but a few are not. For example, our western larch and subalpine larches are conifers that lose their leaves every year in a beautiful show of golden color.

The oldest individual tree in the world is a Great Basin bristlecone pine growing in California. It’s over 5,000 years old – older than the pyramids of Giza. In fact, the largest trees in the world are evergreen conifers in California too – the giant Sequoias, also known as giant redwoods.

Evergreen conifers often grow in cold climates. The pointy shape of the tree and thin needles mean the tree doesn’t have to carry as much snow and is less prone to breaking. The needles are also covered in a layer of wax that protect them from cold. Because evergreens don’t lose their leaves, they can photosynthesize later in the fall and earlier in the spring. This means they can handle short growing seasons better than trees that lose their leaves.

Evergreen conifers are so important. They take carbon out of the air and give us oxygen. They clean our water, shade our rivers to keep water cold for fish, and hold soil in place on our mountainsides. They also provide homes for animals and people.

To explore evergreens with kids, see if you can find all 15 kinds of evergreens in our area. You may have to make trips to different elevations to find them all.

The Wenatchee Naturalist site by Susan Ballinger (mentioned above) and the new free Trees PNW app are excellent resources for your scavenger hunt.

Here are some good questions to ask when trying to identify conifers. Which ones have scale-like needles and which ones have more pointy needles? If you cut the needles in half, what shape does the cross-section make? How does it feel to touch the needles? (I’ve always remembered spruces by the saying “never shake hands with a spruce.”) How many lines are on the underside of each needle?

Do the needles connect to the twig individually, or in bundles? If in bundles, how many needles are in each bundle? (A hint: pines that have “white” in their name – whitebark pine and western white pine – have 5 needles in a bundle, the same number as letters in the word “white.”)

Can you tell what tree is what from far off, just from the shape of the tree? What does the bark look like? You can make a bark rubbing with a piece of paper and a crayon and compare different kinds of bark.

If you and your kids can find every kind of evergreen conifer, you will have explored some of our region’s most beautiful places.