Leaf/Tree Identification and Gathering Pine Needles

At Robin Circle last week we started our time together with a fun scavenger hunt challenge that also helps with plant identification. The challenge is that one of the mentors chooses between 5-7 distinguishing parts of a nearby plant, typically things like leaves, flowers, or seed pods. They are spread out on a bandana or other blank surface and covered. The group then gathers around and the specimens are revealed for only several seconds. The participants are challenged to take a photograph with their mind of as many of the specimens as they can, and then venture out onto the landscape to try and find them.

Chautaqua park is a great place for this activity, particularly for trees because of the diversity of both native and non-native species in the park. Since it’s autumn and the deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves, we played this game with tree leaves. There are some really incredible tree species in the park near where we meet for Robin Circle, and we wanted to give the girls a chance to get to know them in a special way. This activity is not so much about knowing the name of the plant you are finding — it doesn’t require textbook naturalist knowledge. It’s about learning to form “search images” in your mind, which are mental photographs that are stored in the memory and used to identify similar things in the future. Humans have a natural capacity to do this. Graphic designers and advertisers know this, and take advantage of it with the development of symbols and logos that are used to promote products. In our world today, we are often using this ancient cognitive ‘tracking’ capability whether we know it or not. That said, once you play a sensory game like this with natural objects, names and facts you learn about them afterwards will stick much better in the memory.


The mystery leaves. We learned after gathering them that they are a leaf from the red oak family, one from the white oak family, a silver maple, a sugar maple, american elm, and basswood i.e. american linden.

Everyone did a great job at collecting the mystery leaves!
Everyone did a great job at collecting the mystery leaves!

We learned that the trees that these leaves come from have been used in diverse ways by humans both in the past and in the present. Oak seeds (acorns) used to be a staple fall harvest food used by native americans and paleolithic peoples across the continent, and they also contain valuable compounds (known as tannins) used in ancestral methods of tanning hides and making leather. Oaks in the red oak family (which have spikier lobes on their leaves) generally have more bitter acorns that require more processing to remove the tannins. Some white oak acorns (rounded lobes on the leaves) are palatable enough to be eaten raw. Maple trees, especially sugar maple, were tapped in the early springtime by people indigenous to the northeastern U.S. to make syrup, which is still a popular sweetener today. It’s hard to tell some of the maples apart, but one general rule is that red maple leaves are more angular and sugar maple leaves are more curvy. Silver maples have longer, more slender lobes and have a striking geometric appearance.

The park near the restaurant at Chautauqua featured a gargantuan Basswood tree, which is one of my favorite trees and where I’m from it’s often referred to as the “survival tree.”

Basswood leaves and flower pods
Basswood leaves and flower pods

Virtually every part of the basswood tree (also called “American Linden) has a use. In the spring, the buds and new leaves can be eaten raw and are reminiscent of kale or spinach. Traditionally, native people boiled the sap to make syrup. Later in the summer, the narrow leaflets and flowers can be harvested and dried to make a calming tea similar to chamomile (“Linden tea”). The inner bark of basswood can make very strong rope, and this was a very important resource for native people. Its wood is light yet durable and is highly favored for carving, and it makes excellent primitive fire (friction fire) kits. Maybe in the spring we can sample some of this great tree’s delicious leaves!

We spent the rest of Robin Circle venturing up to a nearby ridge to collect pine needles. Our hope is that this coming week we can start making a pine needles basket with them. Long pine needles like Ponderosa are good for making a very simple kind of coiled basket. As an example, Arielle and I brought some baskets that we’d made.

My little pine needle basket.
My little pine needle basket.

Let’s see how it goes on Tuesday!

Autumn Blessings,

So Sinopoulos-Lloyd

Mentor at Robin Circle

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