Turn your Christmas tree selection into a discovery of evergreens
Help youth explore the difference between evergreens when selecting the best Christmas tree this year.
December is the month for family gatherings and holiday traditions. For many families, this includes a trip out to a Christmas tree farm to find and get the “best ever” Christmas tree. At the tree farm, you will see lots of evergreen trees in various shades of green, and you may think how beautiful all those pine trees are. But are they really all pine trees? In fact, there are usually pine trees, spruces and fir trees. How could you tell them apart? Trying to figure out what tree it is provides a wonderful opportunity for you to have your youngsters investigate. They can take a closer look at the tree shape, branches, needles and color.
Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H Science and Engineering Program recommends to ask questions and discover the answers! Have youngsters use their senses. Is the tree fragrant? How does it feel? Do the needles grow in bunches or individually on the branch? Are the needles prickly and stiff or soft to the touch? Are the needles whorled around the branch or do they grow in rows?
Here are some simple tips that will help you tell pines, spruces and firs apart:
- Pine trees: The needles grow in clusters of two to five needles, which are bunched together at the base of the cluster. The needle length varies depending on the variety of the pine tree. Red pines have clusters of about 2-inch long needles, while white pines have clusters of about 5-inch long needles. White pines are very soft to the touch.
- Spruce trees: The needles are stiff, sharp and prickly. They grow individually on small, woody pegs and whorl around the twig. Twigs and branches are densely covered with needles. The woody base is left behind when the needle falls off, giving the branch a rough feel. The cross section of a needle is square. You can roll the needles between your fingers.
- Fir trees: The needles are flat, flexible and soft to the touch. They grow in two rows, are flat and attach to the twig with suction cup-like structures. When the needles are detached from the branch, only a small, circular scar is left and the branch feels smooth. Fir trees are usually very fragrant.
Now that your youngsters have discovered the difference between pines, spruces and firs, and learned that not all evergreens are pine trees, it is time to choose your perfect Christmas tree. You can find tips on selecting, buying and caring for Christmas trees in a series of articles by Bert Cregg and Jill O’Donnell of MSU Extension. Be sure to involve your youngsters when selecting your Christmas tree and have them decide and explain why or why not one or the other tree might be the better choice. Does the tree feel dry and do the needles fall off when touched? Is the tree too dense for your ornaments, or are the branches too flexible? Or maybe the tree is too prickly? Why is the tree so prickly? Michigan 4-H encourages youth to explore the answers to their questions.
When you get home with your Christmas tree, it is recommended to cut about an inch off the trunk if your tree was a pre-cut tree. At this time, your youngster could count the tree rings to determine the tree’s age. Put your tree into a tree stand that holds at least 1 gallon of water. Your tree will be thirsty at first. Have your children help water the tree and then watch and measure how much water the tree drinks up per day. Does the tree use more water during the first few days? Why? When is the tree using less water? Does the room temperature play a role?
You may want to treat your family to some hot chocolate to warm up after spending the time outdoors choosing the best Christmas tree ever and learning some science at the same time. The outdoor, hands-on experiential learning is fun and educational.
MSU Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”
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