Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tree Identification Resources and Acorn Bread

This past week started with my daughter attempting to teach her brother's co-op group about tree identification. She had studied the trees of our area last year in order to compete in the "Forestry" section of the Science Olympiad, and studied well enough to earn herself a silver metal. I was very proud of her, so when she said she wanted to try to teach a class I was supportive. She scouted out a convenient trail and put together a short scavenger hunt along with an identification sheet of some common trees. We were all set to go.

The morning she was to "teach" she woke up with a horrible cold and could hardly speak. To make matters worse, three of the co-op members said they couldn't make it. Also, on the way to the park to meet us, one family had car trouble and had to turn back home. A second family got into a car accident and totaled their car on the way to the park, and one of our moms went to try to help them out. It seemed like maybe we should give up and all go home before anything else happened, but we pushed ahead.

I served as my daughter's voice and we managed to get though the lesson, which I don't think was too bad, all things considered. At least it was a beautiful day, and there were leaves both on the trees and on the ground. We took a short walk identifying various trees and then the kids were sent out to collect their own samples. We ran out of time, but the plan had been to do leaf rubbings and further identification after that. 

Below is the scavenger hunt she put together. This seemed to work fine for the 6 - 14 years olds present, and the trees we were after were native to the South Eastern United States, and more specifically to the North Carolina Piedmont.

Tree Leaf Scavenger Hunt

Once divided into your groups, go out and find leaf samples for each tree listed. It’s all right if you don’t get them all, and they don’t have to be fresh, you can take them off the ground. Make sure to remember leaf variation.

This is very important. Make sure that you don’t wander to far away from your group. It’s okay to go off the trail, but not too far. You don’t want to get lost, and you don’t want to stomp on too much plant life. While off the trail, watch for poison ivy. It takes the form of a three-leaved plant and a hairy vine.

Names on list are not specific. Example: Oak instead of Black Oak or White Oak, Hickory instead of Shagbark Hickory. For bonus, tell me the specific species of tree you have collected. After hunt, we will be showing off each other’s leaf samples and I will help identify.

Tree Leaves Needed (find me and ask if you have any questions.)










Walnut or Hickory

Other Plants (not necessary, but if you have extra time, feel free to do this. Do not collect these, but if you see any, mark it off. I may not go over this in class.)

Cat Briar


Virginia Creeper

Later in the week we also had the good fortune to take in a class about trees by our favorite teacher at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. We met at Pullen Park in Raleigh and got a terrific class from Bob Alderink on why trees grow the way they do, how they grow, root structure, xylem and phloem, and more. We also did some tree identification and the kids got to see a core sample being taken. I have now studied and taught botany and thought I knew most of that stuff about trees, but I learned a great deal that I did not clearly understand just through reading books. As usual, I was not in the least disappointed by this class. We all learned a few new things.

For example, there is a beetle called the twig girdler. It likes to lay it's eggs in small tree branches and then goes around the twig chewing until it breaks off the tree. You can find the little bits of branch all over the ground and can tell the twig girdler has been at work by the perfectly round way in which the branch is snapped off.

This is Bob explaining that heartwood is xylem that the tree has packed with waste products so that it doesn't work anymore. The tree gets rid of stuff it doesn't need anymore, gets a nice solid center, and continues to grow out-wards  This is why it is so much denser than the rest of the trunk.

If you are interested in some of the classes through NCMNS, a listing of upcoming offerings can be found here.

Also, some great tree identification books for the Southeast are the Peterson Guides. They have some smaller guides for children that are pretty good. I also found a neat little guide in the museum shop called Common Forest Trees of North Carolina and How to Know Them: A Pocket Manual by the North Carolina Forest Service. I love this one because it's just the right size and just the right amount of information for a young learner. An online source of this book can be found here.

Finally, Trees of the Carolinas isn't bad and is a nice small size to carry around.

While we were outside I noticed that it seems to be a good year for White Oak acorns. Some years are better than others and a good year is called a "mast" year. I couldn't help collecting a few, though I won't have time to make acorn bread like a did a couple of years ago. What I would like to do, though, is repost my "acorn bread" blog post for you here again in case you think you might want to give it a try! 

Happy Fall y'all!


On Making Acorn Bread (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know and a Bunch I Bet You Didn't) (originally posted October 25, 2011)

A couple of weeks ago I took a little walk in a local park and couldn't help noticing the tons of huge beautiful acorns littering the ground. Not only were they big and beautiful, but I also realized that they were from a white oak. Our naturalist friend, Bob, has said that white oak acorns are the best for making acorn flour, because they have the least tannins, the dark stuff that turns swampy backwaters brown. Tannins are also bitter and bad for humans (they can actually damage your kidneys if you consume too much of the stuff), even though they don't seem to bother squirrels, mice and pigs in the least. I decided on the spur of the moment to collect a bunch and see if I could make some of my own acorn flour, just like the Native Americans used to do. Before the "white man" came to North America, eastern indian tribes (and others) used acorns as a significant protein source, and it occurred to me that it was just a bit odd how little of the natural abundance of the eastern forests our current society uses these days. Here were hundreds of acorns, just lying around on the ground, and nobody ever does anything with them, except curse at them when they land on their decks and driveways and scream when they step on their sharp caps.

I collected all I could hold, but then realized I probably didn't have enough, so my daughter helped me to collect some more on another trail. Unfortunately, I think that these may have been acorns from a red oak, because, as I found out later, they were very bitter.

When collecting your acorns you have to be very careful, get them when they are brown, and discard any that have ANY sort of hole or crack in them. Usually a hole means rot or a worm. The worm comes from a kind of weevil that feeds on acorns, and who can blame them for also laying their eggs in the acorn as well? Seems like a pretty good strategy to me.

Anyway, the kids and I spent about an hour shelling them. There are a couple of websites out there with some great suggestions about processing acorns. They had suggested that we dry the acorn first (either by air drying or in a warm oven) and then they would be easy to shell. Unfortunately, my impatience got the best of me and we didn't take their advice. Still, in the end, we had a nice bowl of nut meat ready for processing, and the kids had had some fun cracking nuts.

Also suggested, was to grind them into a fine powder before soaking, but I just stuck them into my food processor and managed to get a coarse grind. I then took them and put them into what I had handy, a large french press. 

This was great, except that I then had to soak and drain, soak and drain, several times day for about a week before I could get all the bitter taste out of the nut meat. I even drained and dried it once before realizing they were still bitter and had to put them back in for more soaking. It is possible that if I had used a fine powder grind and a cheesecloth, like some sites suggested, it would have been faster, but what's the fun if you don't make some mistakes to learn from?

This, by the way, is probably the main reason people don't do this much. The soaking is a big PITA. It takes forever. Apparently, the Native Americans would set them in a fast flowing stream to wash away the tannins, but I don't have a stream, and I really don't want to waste too much water. 

Anyway, once you can't taste any bitter on them anymore, you need to set them out to dry. I used a combination of a warm oven and air-drying. After a couple of days, I gave them one more spin in the food processor and stowed them away until I had some time to do some cooking. 

Many people suggest a simple acorn pancake, but I'm a little bit nervous about this. This was a lot of work and I wasn't sure acorn meal straight up would be all that tasty, so I opted for an acorn bread from thiswebsite. There are actually several websites out there with recipes using acorn meal or flour. If you do a search for "acorn recipe" several will come up. 

This recipe used equal parts acorn meal and whole wheat flour (not good for my gluten free friends I know), but the result was a tasty, nutty bread I could happily eat again. I actually didn't have quite enough acorn meal for the recipe, but it turned out well anyway.

In short, having (hopefully) learned from my mistakes, I think I would do it again. Maybe for Thanksgiving dinner as a special treat, and as a bonus, I get to feel like a real honest-to-goodness pioneer, able to live off the land. Ok, well, maybe not, but one can dream can't they?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Getting out the dust rag and NaNoWriMo

Wow, it's been getting kinda dusty over here! Here, let me get a cloth... That's better. Now, let's see...

I can unequivocally say that this is the busiest Fall I have had in a very long time, and I haven't enjoyed the pace at all. We have finally gone over the edge from busy to INSANELY busy. I am counting the days until I can say goodbye to some of the stuff we are doing. I have officially put my last co-op teaching commitment behind me now however, and I am really looking forward to getting back here on my blog and sharing things.

In the writing vein of things, I should also mention that November is NaNoWriMo month (National Novel Writing Month) and my daughter plans to not only do it again, but to up her word count considerably. The only thing complicating it for her is the fact that in the past month she has started and failed to complete 3 more stories. She'll have to start a new one in November and keep it going A WHOLE MONTH. I'd dearly love to see her finish something and turn it into something truly good with some editing for a change, but they say it takes many years to make a great writer/artist/dancer/etc....

For my part, I have decided that instead of trying to write something new, I will be editing the story I wrote last year, and hopefully posting it here. It's all about a homeschool family, so I think putting it here on my blog is the right place for it. If people like it, I might be tempted to try something new. I won't get any credit for NaNoWriMo for this, but it will mean a lot to me to finally feel like I've got something I want to show people. 

If you are interested in joining in on the fun. The website is here. Adults aim to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The Young Writers Program allows kids to set their own writing goal and they "win" if they reach it. There are "pep talks" by famous writers and other supportive resources, and it can be a great deal of creative fun, not to mention very educational. Sometimes I have found that having a fun goal to reach can be very rewarding and motivational for us. This is why I find myself entering the kids in contests like this (or a Spelling Bee, Geography Bee, or science event like Science Olympiad or Odyssey of the Mind). Some kids do better with this than others though. I know that many kids would not like the pressure of a contest. The great thing about NaNoWriMo though, is that you are only competing against yourself and the clock. In the end there is a great deal of positive reinforcement and a glowing sense of pride in having accomplished something you weren't really sure you could do.