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Resources for Studying Trees

Identification Guides:

North American Wildlife This book includes color pictures of all the common trees, shrubs, and animals of North America.  Concise information about habitats, eating habits, and growth are included.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees Western Region by Elbert Little.  (and you can also get the Eastern Region, as applicable)  Full colored pictures of the bark and the leaves of the trees of North America.

Peterson First Guide To Trees. Field guide for the beginning naturalist, with full color illustrations!

Plant Families-  How to Know Them. H. E. Jaques compiled this taxonomy key.  This pictured-key has almost all known members of the plant kingdom.


Trees for American Gardens:  The Definitive Guide to Identification & Cultivation by Donald Wyman.  This is a tree book for the gardener who wants to know about the trees he has and about new trees he can get.  Many details about native trees as well as those cultivated, but not occurring in natural settings.

4-H Forestry Project: Forests of Fun. According to their website, “Forests of Fun provides a wealth of information and serves as the 4-H Forestry connection to the larger forestry community. You can find advanced activities, career information and an introduction to forestry organizations nationwide.”

Habitat Studies:

The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States. Janine Benyus wrote this book and the companion book: The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Western United States. The line drawings within the books are great and there are lots of facts about the habitats we live in, including the trees.  She includes information on the habitats in all four seasons.

Plants in General:

Experimenting with Plants. Joel Beller wrote this wonderful book on plants with lots of hands on activities for the inquistitve experimenter.

Specific Information about your area:  Can get posters, lists and pictures of native living species, and publications.

  • Nature Centers
  • Museums
  • Agricultural Experiment Stations
  • Parks; City, State, National, and World Parks

Have any other great resources you’d like to share? Leave a comment and let us know!


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A Walk in the Forest


Go outside , look around you, and notice the trees.  Trees form the backdrop of our environment.  Just what are trees and what do they do?  It is interesting to study trees because they are so different from the rest of creation.  From the majestic redwood to the resilient bristle cone pine, trees add utility and beauty to our lives.

Make trees a year long study and make a notebook or lapbook that shows what you learned!

A tree is..

A woody, perennial plant with one main stem or trunk which develops many branches.  Most trees are over ten feet tall.   – Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

When you walk through the forest take your camera, a plant press, a marker pen, a small bag for samples of bark, a tape measure, your notebook, a tree identification guide, and lunch.  Put everything in a backpack for comfort.  If you are in a park and cannot walk far, you can carry everything in a picnic basket and still do your tree study.  Wear sturdy shoes and comfortable clothing.

Before you leave home, look up the definition of a tree and record it in your notebook.  As you walk, you may need to recognize the difference between trees and large shrubs so look up shrub, too.

As you walk up to the forest…

Take a photo of it as a whole.  This will show you later what the habitat was and the general layout of the forest.  A photo will be a record of the environment so that you can compare this season’s forest with that of later seasons.  Is there undergrowth or is it grassy?  Are there low shrubs around for small animal homes?  Are the trees in leaf?  Is there snow or water on the ground?   If you use a photograph, you can record most of the data at home after your walk.

Use this Tree Page download to record your data.

In the forest…

Choose a tree.  An adult tree is best.  Record its circumference, the types of bark, leaf shape, and branch pattern.  Does it have any fruit or nuts?  Stand back and observe its shape.  Record your data in your notebook.

Measure the height of the tree.

You can do this in the same way that you measure the height of a building or the height of a model rocket in flight.

  1. Measure with the tape measure ten of your paces and figure out how far 100 feet actually is in your own paces.  You will walk that number of paces out from the tree.
  2. Start at the bottom of the tree and walk outward in a straight line counting your paces for about 100 feet.  Mark the spot.
  3. Use a protractor to measure the angle from the ground to the top of the tree.  A clinometer is helpful, but not required.  It provides a way to sight the tree along the straight edge of the protractor and easily read the angle with a weighted string. Here is a video on how to make a simple one.
  4. Use the chart on the Tree Page download to convert the measured angle into the height of the tree. Record.

An alternative, easier method:

  1. Fold a square piece of paper into a triangle, making one 90° angle and two 45° angles.
  2. Walk outward from the tree in a straight line until the top of the tree can be sighted along the 45° fold.  At this point the number of feet you walked is equal to the height of the tree in feet.
  3. Count your paces and divide by the number of feet per pace in order to determine the feet you have paced outward from the tree.  This is also the height of the tree.

If you are allowed, take samples of the leaves of each of the trees you studied.  If you cannot remove samples from your location, draw or take pictures of the leaves for your notebook.  Be sure to record each leaf’s source tree.  You can also take samples of very small pieces of bark choosing fallen pieces of bark about 2 inches square.  Use a marker to record the type of tree bark on the back of the sample.

Girdling a tree is removing the bark in a circle all around the tree.  This will kill the tree.  Taking any bark from a living tree is dangerous to the tree.  Please take bark samples only from dead trees.

Tree Rings

When a tree grows, the plant constructs a sturdy kind of tissue called wood.  Wood and leaves make up the living part of the tree.  As the tree grows, it makes more wood and the tree gets thicker.

tree ringsWood is designed by God to be strong, resilient, and lasting.  That is why we can make our houses out of wood.  The tree must be able to withstand wind, cold, heat, and even floods.  Noah built his ark out of wood because God told him to do so.  God knew that a boat made of wood would float even in the terrible flood which was coming.

When trees grow, wood is added to the trunk in rings.  Dark rings are made when the winter slows down the tree’s growth.  Lighter, thicker rings are made in the summer when there is plenty of water, light, and warmth for growing.

Lunch break…

Choose a rock on which to sit for your lunch.  As you eat, enjoy the beauty and majesty of the trees around you.  Not all places have trees.  There is a forest in west Texas which boasts one tree with no others for miles.  Notice the shape of the branch pattern.  There is a specific pattern for each kind of tree.  Some branch styles have been used by architects as patterns for churches.  In a winter forest in Arkansas the branches form a beautiful cathredral designed by the hand of God.

As you sit, sketch the branch patterns of several trees.  This is easier in winter, but not impossible in other seasons.

When you return home…

  • Look up the type of trees you studied.  Do they have uses to people?   Some possible uses are: fruit, nuts, wood for paper and lumber, landscaping. climbing, swinging from, homes for animals like squirrels, holding up basketball hoops and bird houses, and so on.
  • Organize your notebook according to tree types, for example: oaks, maples, pines, etc.
  • Label a page according to tree type and write the information you gathered about that tree on the page.
  • Preserve your leaf samples by gluing each onto a sheet of paper.  Label by name of tree, location of collection, and date of collection.
  • Attach any photos you have on the pages containing information on that tree.
  • Place the overall environment photos in the front of your notebook.  If you have seasonal photos, include them in order.  Don’t forget to label your photos.
  • Decorate the notebook according to the tree theme.

Do you have any wonderful resources for a tree study?  Leave a comment and let us know!




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The Butterfly Garden

The butterfly is a beautiful addition to your garden.  Because they can be easily grown and observed, because they occur all across North America, and because they are so beautiful, they are well studied in homeschool.  Here are some ideas for doing a unit on lepidoptera, butterflies.

Start with a trip to your dictionary and look up the words: butterfly, lepidoptera, moth, scales, wings, proboscis, and antennae.  Next, check out a book about butterflies and learn about their life cycles.  Then, go to your garden shop and ask about plants which attract butterflies and about the gardens they love best.  Now you are ready to put together your butterfly garden.

Planning your garden

There are a few qualities a garden should have in order to become a place which will attract butterflies.  The location should be sunny and have some protection from the wind.   Although butterflies look delicate, they are stronger than they appear, but wind will tend to carry them easily past the plants you want them to inhabit.  They do bask in the sun on low walls, log piles, and stones, all places of shelter and sun.  Butterflies have predators as well and low growing shrubs and rocks can provide some protection.

Butterflies need sources of rich nectar and are attracted to plants which smell sweet.  Choose plants like the butterfly bush or the coreopsis which will provide these things by growing beautiful flowers all season long.  The most obvious plants are local wildflowers; for example, honeysuckles, lupines, black-eyed susans, and, in Texas, bluebonnets.  See the list below the post for suggested plants.  In your local area there may not be many of those plants listed here, but do not worry as there are some generic plants which will probably be found either in nearby fields or at your plant store.  Other sources of butterfly attracting plants are mail order suppliers.  Mass plantings of colorful and sweet smelling plants are great for your butterfly garden.  Creeping phlox which cascades over walls is a good attractor as in Spanish heather.

Another, often overlooked plant type which must be present in the garden is the edible plant; edible, that is, for the caterpillars.  When you attract butterflies, they will lay eggs for the next generation of butterflies.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae (caterpillars) must have food so you need to provide for them.  Members of the carrot family, parsley family, lettuces, celery, and other herbs are feasts to caterpillar.  Don’t begrudge them the food because they represent your next group of butterflies.  Host plants will supply many needs of the butterfly in all of its life stages.  Some of these are Butterfly Weed (providing for the Monarch butterfly among others), herbs like dill, parsley, and fennel (which the Black Swallowtail enjoys), and the Tulip Tree (a home for the Tiger Swallowtail).  Willow, clover, milkweed, sassafras, Queen Anne’s Lace, and passion flower are other host plants.

Remember, too, that butterflies are insects and because of this are sensitive to insecticides and pesticides which you may be tempted to use in the garden.  If you need to use something to save your fruit trees or whatever, try to limit the area it may affect.  Only spray the effected area as overspray  will kill your butterflies.  According to the Wise Garden Encyclopedia, even herbicides and fungicides will harm the insects you want to cultivate.

So, now you have a garden which has attracted many different kinds of butterflies.  What do you do next?  Everything is not known about butterflies, their habits, their cycles.  This means that you may discover something important about butterflies.  So, keep a journal on what you see in your garden.  Record the numbers and varieties of the species you see.  Try to answer the questions: what, where, why, when, how, how many, and for how long, in your journal and as completely as you can.  Make colored drawings for your notebook.

Study the behavior of the butterfly. What are the favorite flowers to which each type of butterfly you see is most attracted?  Do they seem to migrate from yard to yard, or even farther?  How long do you notice one butterfly in your yard?

Study the biology of the butterfly: What are the butterflies’ sizes, colors, and flying characteristics?  How do they see and smell?  Can they recognize the colors of the flowers or it is only smell which attracts them?

What are the life cycle stages of your butterflies?  Study the adults and try to find the eggs they lay.  Keep careful watch over the eggs until they hatch, then observe the larvae.  Make sure that the larvae are getting plenty to eat and then watch over the chrysalises they produce.  At the correct time, perhaps ten days, the beautiful butterfly will come out of the chrysalis and begin to fly.  Keep records of the stages and the number of days each lasts in your journal.

Collect more butterflies for your garden: Go out into the field or forest and look for chrysalises hanging from limbs, leaves or rocks.  Collect them carefully and place them into a vivarium (a place for live specimen).  Later, when they come out you can place them in your garden on some good tasting (to larvae) plants for them to grow and mature.  Another way to collect butterflies for your garden is to look for caterpillars to place on the parsley or carrot plants.  Although some of them are not the prettiest thing in the garden, they mature into something of beauty, so remember that when you see them eating up your salad greens.

Observe the four stages of the life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (within the chrysalis), and adult (butterfly).  Make drawings or take photos to record the events.  To photograph a butterfly, you will find it best if you collect the caterpillar and wait it out until the adult emerges from the chrysalis.  For a brief time, the tissues have not hardened sufficiently for flight and the butterfly can be photographed fairly easily.

The butterfly is an insect and so is made up of three body parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen.  The parts are segmented with the wigs usually coming from second and third segments of the thorax.  The head has compound eyes, segmented antennas, and a proboscis.  This proboscis can unroll into a long sucking tube which allows the butterfly to feed upon nectar.
If you wish to preserve some of the butterflies, catch them with a butterfly net, place them in a killing jar, dry them on a spreading board and pin them, labeled, in a box prepared for the collection.  Be sure to write on a slip of paper pinned with the specimen, the pertinent data:  place found, name of the butterfly species, common name, when the specimen was collected, and by whom.
The homeschooler has an advantage in the study of butterflies since they are usually active during the day.  There are many types of butterflies, over 700 varieties in North America, so there are plenty to study.  Build a butterfly garden, get out that journal, and begin a study of beautiful creatures which can last a lifetime!

Plants which will attract and feed adult butterflies:
This list has been adapted from The Pike Gardening flyer on Butterfly Gardens and The Wise Garden Enclyclopedia.

Asclepias (milkweed, butterfly weed)
Black-eyed Susan
Butterfly Bush (buddleia)
Butterfly Weed
Cardinal flower
Coreopsis (Tickseed)
Corn flower
Daucus (Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot)
Dianthus (pinks, Sweet William)
Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower)
Gaillardia (blanket flower)
Mock orange
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan)
Syringa (Lilac)
White or pink viburnum


The Wise Garden Encyclopedia by HarperCollins Publishers.  An alphabetic resource for anything to do with gardens, plants, and planting.  The authors have included hints for growing and other tidbits of useful information hidden within the formality of a glossary format.

Butterflies and Moths: A Golden Guide This book is a must have for the homeschooler who is interested in butterflies.  Discussing the life cycles, habitats, migrations, and food sources, the book provides a fairly complete text.  The majority of the book is, of course, identification of American butterflies and moth in full color.


Butterflies Worth Knowing by Dr. Clarence M. Weed.  A wonderful introduction tobutterflies covering their cycles, habitats, structure, and going into much detail about some of the more common butterflies of North America.  It is an older book which can be found in libraries.

Botany by Kim Wright   A brand new unit study written for homeschoolers but which could be used by any school, this 133 page book has lots of activities and lists of resources and other ideas to use in a study of plants. (even has flashcards)  There are questions to answer in the study, instructions for an organised plan, vocabulary list, and lab instructions; basically everything you need but the text, two lab books, and a few materials, to do a semester on plants.  Throw out the biology book for a semester and use this unit study on plants.

The Butterfly Site Visit this website to plan your butterfly garden by area, and then order the appropriate plants or seeds.  Lots of good tips on butterfly gardening!

Insect Collector’s Backpack Kit.  This great little backpack comes with everything you need to collect butterflies or any insect.  Sold by Home Science Tools, it has a net, Audubon guide, magnifier, killing jar, pins, and a bunch more.  Check here for all their insect collecting supplies.