Using our senses to observe what’s going on around us is a very primary activity. It is primary in at least two ways: (1) It is one of the first activities we engage in as we come to be, and it is what we do, or at least what we should do, every time we encounter a novel situation. Categorizing and naming are also very central human activities. From the time we first call all dogs a dog (and often also call cows and horses dog) we improve our ability to sort and name things.

Today’s activity involves learning to categorize and name some of the participants in our local ecosystems: our trees. This activity will not only help us all sharpen our categorizing skills, it will also help us connect with nature and feel more comfortable in our home ecosystem.

The activity is a tag like game. I start the game with all the people that aren’t “it” touching a tree. The person that is “it” (I start the game with me being “it” and usually stay “it” unless someone else is up to the role) then calls out a tree name and everyone else has to run to touch a tree of the named type. “It” can tag anyone while they’re running or if they pick a wrong tree. I do everything I can to keep the game playful and make sure no one feels like a loser. I play the game at different levels of difficulty depending on the age of the kids in the group (currently, the kids in your family, because we’re all practicing social distancing). The game works fine with just an adult “it” and one child. At the easiest level I just use, oak, pine and manzanita as the tree names. At the next level, I break the oaks and pines down into species. At the hardest level I use all the species in the selected taxonomy included with this tip. I mix the teaching in with playing the game, doing the minimum amount of talking required before we start playing.

The particular trees named in this tip are some of the most common trees in Idyllwild Ca. But, you can customize it by first noting and then learning the names of some of the most common trees in your yard or home town.

The first level tree categories I help kids learn about in Idyllwild are pines, oaks and manzanitas. These types of trees are fairly easy to distinguish. All of our pines are evergreen and all pines everywhere produce pine cones. All oaks produce acorns. While most Oaks in the eastern USA are deciduous, many of ours in CA are evergreen. Manzanitas are also easy to recognize. They all have wonderfully smooth bark that is fun to feel and produce sticky fruit that will stick to your hand if you place them in your palm and turn your hand upside down. The next level I use is to break down the pines and oaks down into several common species. And the most detailed breakdown I use with older children is the below selected taxonomy of trees.

If you’re familiar with the tree distinctions at the level you’re going to play at, you’re ready to go. If you need a little more background information before you play, then read on.

Conifers are a class of trees that are common in many regions They are a type of tree that does not produce flowers but instead produces “naked” seeds that are not enclosed in a fruit. Most, but not all, conifers are evergreen, they do not lose their leaves in the winter. The most common conifers in Idyllwild, CA are pines and incense cedars. The most common flowering and “fruit” producing trees in Idyllwild are the oaks and the manzanitas. While many fruit producing trees world-wide are deciduous (i.e., lose all of their leaves in the winter), many of those that grow in Mediterranean biomes like Idyllwild are evergreen. And yes, acorns and other tree nuts, are the fruits of nut trees (e.g., oaks, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts).

Here’s the species of pine and oak I use when we play this game in Idyllwild.

Jeffry Pine: 3 long needles per fascicle (bundle), prickle at end of scale on cones is bent inwards (gentle Jeffry), bark smells of vanilla

Coulter Pine: 3 sharp pointed needles per fascicle (bundle), huge egg-shaped cone

Ponderosa Pine: 2 or 3 needles per fascicle (bundle), prickle at end of scale on cones is bent outwards (painful ponderosa)

Sugar Pine: 5 long needles per fascicle (bundle), long cones (up to 18”),

Incense Cedar: Flat branching “leaves, stringy bark

Manzanita: Smooth red bark and sticky berries that remain on tree

Live Interior Oak: Tall tree with thick, leathery, spiny, ovoid, evergreen leaves

California Scrub Oak: Shrubby tree with thick, leathery, spiny, ovoid, evergreen leaves

Black Oak: Tall tree with deciduous leaves that have 5-7 toothed lobes

And here’s the simplified taxonomy I use with older kids.

Taxonomy of Some Common Trees in Idyllwild

5 thoughts on “Observing, Categorizing and Naming Trees”

  1. I’m trying to figure out which pine trees in idylwild are edible, but I can’t seem to find definite answers. I would like to harvest some needles for tea. I have read that the ponderosa pines is toxic? Do you have any info on this?

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