Tiny sleuths embark on great tree mystery

Detectives: Without clues of summer foliage, children in Harford County learn skills to pick pine from poplar, mulberry from maple.

January 06, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The trees along the Abingdon trail basically looked identical yesterday, with bare, spindly limbs reaching toward the sky and summer coats of leaves long ago turned brown and dropped to the cold forest floor.

It's a fairly simple task to tell one tree from another in the spring and summer, as leaves and buds offer plentiful hints of the lineage of each. But the hints are far fewer this time of year. Yesterday, a group of pint-size sleuths, accompanied by their bundled-up parents, set out to sort through the evidence in a program called "Winter Tree Mysteries" at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Harford County.

"How are we going to solve this great tree mystery?" asked weekend naturalist Judith Simon, who led the hike. "What kind of clues will we look for?"

"Leaves," said 8-year-old Steven Ashman of Havre de Grace.

"Well," replied Simon, who asked the children to call her "Miss Judy," "they're all on the ground. ... We have a great mystery on our hands."

Some of the others offered suggestions of nuts and bark and twigs and more -- and they all set out into the snow to gather their proof.

Sponsored by Harford County Parks and Recreation, yesterday's was the inaugural tree identification program for children. For years, an adult program has been popular so officials decided to add the little ones this time.

"People drive by trees, they see trees every day," Simon said. "It sparks something in their minds -- `Yeah, I've always wondered about that.'"

The lessons began almost immediately.

On the 3/4 -mile walk, they learned the difference between a pitch pine and a Virginia pine (the former's needles come in sets of three, the latter in sets of two), that a chestnut oak drops acorns with hard brown shells, that a sweet gum's seeds are protected by sharp, spindly coatings called "sweet gum balls" that keep squirrels away.

Simon stopped in front of a stark, slim tree without a leaf in sight, but with slight curves at the tips of its limbs. She asked what kind of tree it was. One girl knew immediately -- "witch hazel," she said. She didn't use any standard clues -- the bark or the shape of the tree. She read a sign nailed to a post in front of it.

"That's cheating," her mother said laughing.

"No," Simon answered, "that's using very good observation skills."

Most of the children left the woods with their coat pockets filled with clues -- wet leaves, pinecones and sticks.

They spoke excitedly of a new trick they learned (to remember the Virginia pine is the one with just two needles, make the letter "V" with two of your fingers).

They talked about going home and investigating the trees in their back yards.

"Now I can go outside -- I can tell my dad which tree is which," said Rebecca Postowski, an 8-year-old from Edgewood who was with her mother and 5- year-old sister Michaela.

"You've got to look really closely. Sometimes they look like each other."

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