Winter…everything has turned from green to brown, and seems quiet. But if you know how to look, you’ll see how plants are surviving the cold and darkness. And you can also gather plants to help you have food and warmth, even in winter!
On this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll show you how plants survive the winter–and how plants can help people through winter too!
When you register, your registration is good for every Friday.
Teachers: Your class can join these public field trips, or contact us to set up a zoom field trip just for your classroom.
How Plants Make it to Spring
Cold is a problem for plants. When water freezes into ice, it gets bigger. When water in plant cells freezes, it can burst apart the plants cells.
But cold is not the only danger! Winter means less water. If water is frozen, plants can’t get to it. So plants also have to survive without much water until spring.
There’s also less sunlight. So plants are getting less energy from the sun, even as they have to work harder to survive.
So how do plants survive the cold, little water and little sun? Two common strategies are making seeds and making fat roots. A few plants, like evergreens, have special leaves that can stay alive.
Some plants die in the fall, but not before making lots of seeds. The individual plants might not survive, but their children will grow when spring comes! These plants are called annuals, which means ‘yearly,’ because their life cycle lasts just one year.
Seeds can wait a long time before they sprout, waiting for a sign that it’s safe to grow: they might wait for sunlight, more water, or even a bird pecking them open before they start sprouting.
You can learn to identify plants even in winter, by the shape of their seed heads! Because seeds come from flowers, a plant’s summer flowers often have a similar shape as their seed heads. I love watching plants change through the season. It is fun and helps me find useful plants.
Practice matching winter and summer plants with this game:
Make fire with seed heads
Humans have strategies for surviving winter too. One is fire!
To start a fire, you need light, fluffy, dry material called tinder. People today might use cardboard or paper. That works well if you have matches. But what about before paper or matches existed?
One way to start a fire without matches is using flint and steel to make a spark. These sparks only last a second, so they need to land on something that catches fire very easily. Another way is to make a friction fire with wood (see the video above). Friction fires make a small, delicate coal. Those coals also need very light tinder to catch fire and grow.
Fluffy winter seeds are good tinder for these fires! We like to use goldenrod, like in the picture above. They usually need to dry inside for a few days before they will catch a spark.
Collect some goldenrod seed heads and dry them out. Next time you build a fire, try using them as tinder. How do they work? How fast do they light?
Some plants live multiple years. They are called perennials, which means something that comes back over and over. One way to do that is to make a fat, sugary root!
Underground is a safe place to be in winter. The freezing and frost on the surface only reaches a little ways underground. Leaves, mulch or snow can also protect the ground from getting too cold. Deep in the soil, it feels more like a refrigerator than a freezer.
Plants make food from the sun. In the fall, some perennials put the food in their roots, saving it for later. If you’ve ever eaten a potato or a carrot, you have benefited from this! Those tubers were the plants’ way of saving food for spring (or your belly).
When it’s safe to come out in spring, fresh stems and leaves will sprout from the root.
Make Fire Cider with Horseradish
Horseradish is one plant that makes a big root. Its root can be good medicine for fighting winter colds! Try making this spicy plant medicine. Next time your head feels stuffy, it will help clear it out. Try it as a salad dressing or in water.
A few plants stay alive and green by keeping their leaves low to the ground. Cuddled up to the warmer earth, they might be sheltered by dead leaves. Less cold air reaches them. These plants often only live for two years or so.
Gather chickweed for winter salads
This little plant grows in yards and gardens. Some people think it is a weed. I think it is delicious!
Chickweed is an annual, but sometimes you see it grows anyway. Its seed sprout quickly, and it is so low-lying that it can be protected by the cold by hills and leaves.
Try gathering chickweed to add to your salads. Here’s how to recognize it:
Leaves: pointed and oval shaped, opposite growth pattern (that means they grow directly across from each other)
Flowers: Chickweed flowers are very small, they have 5 double-lobed white petals. Double lobed means divided in two, so it might look like they have 10 petals
Parts to eat: leaves, stems, and flowers are all edible and can be eaten raw. Try adding them to your next salad.
Most plants stop doing anything in winter. They stop photosynthesizing, prepare their seeds or roots, and wait. But not evergreen trees!
It takes a lot of energy to make leaves and needles. Evergreen trees don’t want to waste that energy by dropping leaves. So they make special needle-shaped leaves that are protected from cold and dryness.
Needles are a better shape for holding onto water. Why? They have less surface area.
Think about hanging up a towel to dry. You want to hang it flat and spread out. More of a flat towel is exposed to the air, so it dries faster. But if you ball the towel up on the bathroom floor, it will stay wet for a long time! Less of its surface is exposed.
A typical leaf is like the flat towel. An evergreen needle is like the balled up towel.
Evergreen needles also have a special wax on them that keeps water from evaporating. It’s like covering food with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. If you’ve ever touched an evergreen needle, you’ve felt this wax! It’s why needles feel heavier than typical leaves.
Make Pine Needle Tea
Historically, plants and vegetables were the hardest food to find in winter. Humans ended up eating more meat (because there were still animals to hunt) or more grains (because you could store grain for a long time). But we need the nutrients in plants to be healthy.
Sailors used to have this problem too, because there are no plants at sea. Without enough vitamin C from vegetables, they got a disease called scurvy that made their teeth fall out. They started bringing limes with them to stay healthy.
Teas are a great way to get plant nutrients in winter! The garden might be dead, and pine needles don’t make a great salad. But boil the pine needles in water, and you’ll get a tasty tea with plenty of vitamin C. You can add lemon and honey, too.
Here’s how to identify white pine:
Needles: come in bundles of five, 3-5 inches long, bluish green, with fine white lines also called stomatas. Cones: 3-6 inches long, thinning out near the tip, with cone scales without prickles and light tan to whitish in color on outer edge of the scales.
Try collecting some winter plants for warmth or food! In this post, we’ve showed you how to:
We hope everyone enjoys the holiday season, and spends some time outside. We’ll be curled up and hibernating like this fox for the next two weeks. Virtual field trips will start again on Friday, January 8th.
Here are the topics coming up in January:
Lichens (January 8)
Foraging Winter Plants (January 15) (ACPL program to-go kit available)
Nature Show and Tell (January 22)
Animal Tracks (January 29) (ACPL program to-go kit available)
Do you have a topic you’d like to see on a virtual field trip? Please leave a comment or email email@example.com! We may use your idea in February!
We are calling on YOU to share in this week’s virtual field trip! Is there something in nature that you think is really cool? Have you found a neat plant, rock, or animal recently? One of our favorite things to do is tell our nature nerd friends about our outdoor finds.
Bring your nature objects, pictures or stories to the zoom call on Friday for show and tell. We will take turns sharing, kids and adults both!
If you can’t make the field trip, or want to get more out of it, try some of the activities below!
I’m in Charge of Celebrations
Every experience or interesting find in nature is, in our opinion, worth a celebration. We love this book, I’m in Charge of Celebrations, by Byrd Baylor. It inspires us to make our own holidays, just for us, to enjoy our favorite nature times.
Watch this teacher read this book out loud below, or look for it at your library:
This week, keep track of the things that are worth celebrating! Do you have a calendar, planner or notebook? Write your celebration down or draw a picture.
We’ll share some of our own celebration-worthy nature experiences in the virtual field trip. Tell us about your celebrations in the comments below!
Show and Tell Online
Here at Rural Action, we have a bit of a nature show-and-tell problem. Our phones are full of pictures of bugs and weird leaves. We text them to our friends all day.
We even started a BioBlitz project on a website called iNaturalist. People share pictures of plants and animals they’ve found in our area, then help each other identify them. Some high school students found a dragonfly that had never been seen in Morgan County before!
A few of the many nature pictures clogging up my phone…
Nerd out on nature with us! Take a walk, find a nature book, or just sit outside near your house for ten minutes. Then, share something you’ve found that interests you! You can:
Post about it in the comment section of this blog! (We love that!)
Email a picture/story to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Fall is the last chance for animals to stock up on food before winter hits. Luckily, plants are eagerly making nuts and fruit before it gets too cold for them too. An animal will travel far and wide to find enough food: it can make the difference for whether it survives.
Believe it or not, you’re surrounded by a buffet when you walk in the woods. In this week’s virtual field trip, we’ll teach you how to recognize those fall foods (including a few that are good for humans).
If you couldn’t make the field trip, or want to get more out of it, try some of the activities below!
Two wild fall foods to gather now
Human beings are animals too. We can’t eat everything a bird or chipmunk can, of course. But there are some surprisingly tasty foods just growing in the forest, waiting for you to try them!
Always double check with an adult before eating anything you gather outside. Autumn olive berries and acorns are safe to eat, but you want to make sure that 1, they were gathered from a safe place and 2, you identified them correctly. To learn more about foraging wild foods, check out this post.
Easier option: Autumn olive berries
Autumn olives are an invasive plant in Ohio. They aren’t great for other plants because they steal space from them. But luckily for us, they’re delicious!
Autumn olive grows in abandoned fields that no one has mown for a few years. So look for it in bushy, overgrown areas on the edges of pastures, fields, and woods (like where the woods end just before the parking lot).
The berries are a dark, dull red with subtle dots. They’re close to the size of a pea. To tell them apart from other berries, look for the silvery, dusty coating. The leaves also look silvery on the bottom side.
The berries can be a little tart and make your mouth feel like it’s dried up! But the riper they are, the sweeter they get. They are the perfect texture to make into jam easily.
Challenge option: Make acorn flour
You may never have eaten an acorn. But the deer and the squirrels are on to something. For thousands of years in North America, people who lived near oak trees ate them almost every day!
Trees don’t make the same amount each year. One year, all the trees might make a ton of acorns. This is called a mast year. After a mast year, you might see the deer or squirrel population increase. They are able to have more babies because they had so much food!
But for 3-5 years after that, that kind of oak tree might make very few acorns. Animals like deer have to travel farther to find enough food in years with fewer acorns. They are more exposed to predators, and might be weaker. The deer population might get smaller.
Acorns come from oak trees. There are lots of kinds of oak trees, and some have tastier acorns than others! Wild turkeys, deer, and squirrels prefer to eat white oak and chestnut oak acorns–and those are the kinds I recommend you eat too.
Before eating acorns, you have to soak them in water for a long time (up to a week!). Acorns have a bitter substance in them called tannins. You may have tasted tannins before: they are what makes black tea extra dark and taste bitter if you leave the bag in too long. But acorns have so many tannins that they can give you a stomachache if you eat them raw. Soaking the acorns gets rid of the tannins.
So, if you want to try something new, gather some acorns and start soaking them:
When you eat food, it is fuel for your body. It’s like having a little engine inside of you. A car burns gasoline so it can move down the road. Your body burns food so you can run, talk, and think!
A squirrel takes energy from acorns by eating them, and turns that energy into jumping, tree climbing, and whatever else it is squirrels like to do. A squirrel gathers around 25 nuts in an hour. But how many nuts does a squirrel need anyway?
How do you compare to a squirrel? How many more acorns would you need to eat than a squirrel to do these things?
Calories needed for humankid
Calories needed for squirrel
Calories in an acorn
How many acorns does a person need to eat to do this?
How many acorns does a squirrel need to eat to do this?
Climb to top of a tree
Napping for an hour
Running for 10 minutes
Hunting for acorns for an hour
Hint: Divide the number of calories needed by the number of calories in an acorn. **All of these numbers are rough estimates; don’t use these for health decisions**
Ultimately, all this energy is coming from the sun. It travelled from the sun, to the oak tree’s acorn, to your belly.
For many animals, overeating in the fall is a good thing! The fatter they are, the better they can survive the winter. For example, bears compete to eat as much as they can before hibernating, because they won’t eat at all while they are sleeping. (A fun way to celebrate their success is to vote for the fattest bear of Katmai National Park during Fat Bear Week).
How did you compare to a squirrel? Did you try eating any squirrel food? Tell us about it in the comments!
Explore the mushrooms of the Cornell Mushroom Blog. Click on any picture that looks interesting to you! Find a mushroom that you are drawn to. Maybe it is pretty, surprising, weird, a little gross, or something else.
Think about some of the different fungi you just investigated, big or small. What are some of the different shapes, sizes, and colors you saw? What kind of places did they grow? Draw some of the different shapes mushrooms might have. Share your work in the comments!
The first time I slept in a shelter I built myself, I was camping out with many other families. Everyone else had tents. But I was determined to try something new.
I found a solid tree to support a stick frame. I covered the sticks with thick, thick layers of leaves. Luckily, the kids helped carry big armfuls of leaves for the roof and the ground. It went much faster with many hands! I only barely fit inside the small lean-to.
As evening fell, the sky grew dark. Gulp…it was going to rain.
This week, you learned about pH and how coal mining has acidified local streams. A lot of wildlife cannot live in or around streams with acid mine drainage. Luckily, we can do a lot to help streams recover! What ideas do you have for how to make these creeks healthy again?
If we stop these things from mixing, then no AMD will form. This is called Source Control.
The best way to stop AMD from forming? Keep water from touching and mixing with the pyrite.
Sometimes this means covering big piles of leftover coal waste, also known as gob piles, with impermeable soil. Impermeable means no liquid can pass through. The impermeable soil stops water from reaching any iron pyrite in the first place.
Another way we prevent water from mixing with iron pyrite is preventing stream capture. How and why do you think we could capture a stream?
Sometimes, above old mines, the ground collapses. It falls into the empty space where the coal had been removed. This is a sinkhole. If there is a stream above it, the stream flows down through the sinkhole into the old coal mine (Ahhhh! exactly the opposite of what we want to happen!). Now the stream is “captured” by the mine. Eventually, water fills up the mine and spills out into nearby streams with acid mine drainage.
To prevent this, we fill the collapsing sinkhole with impermeable soil. Then we change the stream’s path to go around it. Now the stream water never mixes with old mines, and never makes AMD!
Sometimes, we just cannot prevent AMD from forming. I think of it as the stream getting sick. We try our hardest to prevent the stream from getting sick (AMD) but sometimes it happens. So we have to give it ‘medicine’ to treat it.
There are two different ways we do this: passive treatment and active treatment. To remember the differences of these two words, I think of my lazy or “passive” kitty taking a nap and then my other crazy “active” kitty chasing his toys around the house!
When we passively treat AMD, we build something that treats the water, then leave it be! Once it is built, it doesn’t need much maintenance or work. One example is a wetland.
Passive Treatment: Wetlands
Wetlands are amazing ecosystems. As well as helping treat AMD, they provide habitat for native birds and other wildlife. They also hold water during floods. Wetlands can help treat AMD by making water slowwww downnnn.
When the water slows down, oxygen and tiny bacteria have more time to work their magic. The iron forms here instead of downstream, creating this gunky orange wetland! So how does this help our fish? Well, by controlling where our iron forms (orange gunk), we keep it from washing into rest of the stream, where it will affect all the critters living there.
But iron is only half of the problem. Our pH is still too low. This water is still acidic. To fix this, we must add something with a high pH to raise the pH of the water to a healthy level.
A passive way to do this is to add limestone gravel, just like the kind in your driveway! We reroute our stream, making it flow through layers of limestone. Some of the limestone will dissolve just like sugar in water, raising the pH of the water to a healthy, neutral level.
Neither the wetland nor the limestone gravel need maintenance every year. They can be left alone for long periods of time and still work. This is a cheaper and easier solution in the long run, if you have enough space for a wetland.
Active treatment: Lime dosers
Finally, our last resort for treating AMD is called a “doser,” which is a form of active treatment. Active treatment means people have to keep taking care of the doser, or it won’t work.
Dosers are tall silos, full of activated, powdered lime (it’s made from limestone, not the fruit!!). This lime has a very high pH (it’s basic). The silo pours little doses of basic lime into the acidic water, raising the pH.
We have to refill the dosers with more powdered lime often. If the doser runs out of lime, the treatment immediately stops working and the stream returns to being too acidic almost immediately. So these dosers require a lot of attention!
Downstream of these dosers, fish have come back to creeks that had been empty for years.
There’s no one right choice
To sum up, there are a ton of different things that water quality specialists and environmentalists must think about before we can treat AMD. No two Acid Mine Discharge sites are the same. In many places, we use a variety of the techniques from above to fix the streams as best we can. Here is a handy little chart to help you compare:
Today, we’ll explore how to change the pH of a liquid. That’s what we do when we treat acid mine drainage. Watch what happens when an ultra-basic material (our lime powder, which has a pH of 14+) meets an acidic material (acid mine drainage):
Woah! The basic lime and acidic mine drainage react. This reaction releases energy as heat. Did you see steam from the reaction and the cup melting? It is very hot!
This happens when we add a little bit of AMD to a LOT of powdered lime. This causes the reaction to happen very fast, so we can see it. The doser adds only a little lime to a lot of water and AMD. So the reaction happens much more slowly in the stream, and is not so dangerous.
We can create a similar reaction at home mixing two common items: vinegar (acidic, or low pH) and baking soda (basic, or high pH).
Your thinking cap!
To create the reaction:
Measure out ½ cup of vinegar into a large bowl.
Add a tablespoon of baking soda to the vinegar. Observe what happens. What is similar or different from my video above?
Imagine your vinegar is a stream we are trying to fix. Could you make the vinegar neutral? How?
Continue to experiment slowly with adding more or less baking soda. If the reaction stops, the pH is probably close to neutral.
Congrats–you just changed the pH!
To be sure whether it worked, you can check the pH of your treated vinegar with the cabbage indicator or pH strips.
We treat acid mine drainage either by stopping it from forming, or by fixing the pH.
To fix the pH, we can use passive treatments (wetlands) or active treatments (lime dosers).
Try changing pH yourself at home with the baking soda and vinegar experiment. You are doing the same basic thing we do to make our creek liveable for fish!