The BioGeek Memoirs: Conifers

Conifers. Oh, my goodness, who doesn’t love conifers? As in wonderful smells, pinecones, Christmas trees, snowy days, and fun trips to the mountains. I grew up in southern California and the conifer that I loved as a child was the ponderosa pine. It had bark that pulled apart into jigsaw shaped pieces. The bark smelled like butterscotch (or maybe vanilla), and the long needles grew in little bundles of three… perfect for braiding!! The cones are perfect for dabbing with white paint, sprinkling with glitter, and then using for holiday decorating. Perfect tree, the ponderosa pine. It is beautiful and kind of feathery with clumps of needles near the ends of branches.

Then I moved to Colorado.

Trees in Rocky Mountain National Park. The large tree on the left is a ponderosa pine.

Oh, boy, did I need to learn a lot more about these trees. There are a lot of conifers in Colorado, and they grow in different environments and elevations as you drive up into our mountains. The ponderosa pines are found at lower elevations (5,000 – 7,000 feet) and then as you drive up into higher elevations different trees start to show up as the ponderosas disappear. In high elevations they are nowhere to be found, and the trees that are around 10,000 feet are specialized and designed to live in challenging environments. One tree has branches that are so flexible you can tie them in knots (limber pine), and another is just dripping in anti-freeze sap (bristlecone pine).

One summer I took a forestry class and spent a couple of weeks coring trees and recording their elevation and growth into a large data base maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. I learned to shield my coring activity from casual hikers (Yeah. People in the Boulder, Colorado might take extreme exception to your activities if they suspect that you are harming a tree… tree huggers are alive and well here!) and developed an appreciation for the impact of local environmental conditions on trees.

As a biology teacher I struggled to teach plants (yawn) and taxonomy (super-yawn) to my students. I searched for hands-on activities that could be used to teach these units, and finally remembered that the teachers in the high school where I did my student teaching ran a big lab where students used keys to identify Colorado’s conifers. Another teacher had keys that we could adapt to use with the activity and off I went on a road trip to collect conifer samples in the Rocky Mountains west of the town where I live.

Why use conifers? Well, they are pretty darn interesting if you think about it. The plants produce two different types of cones (seed, on the left, and pollen, on the right) and have leaves that are needle like. They are older than flowering plants in evolutionary terms and have some cool adaptations. They use wind to reproduce and have turpentine and other organic compounds that allow them to stay alive in cold climates. Cut branches are hardy enough to survive handling by hundreds of students as they worked the activity. Yeah. Conifers were the ticket!!

So, how did this work? The students picked up bins with samples of branches and cones from the plants and, using the keys, figured out what conifer they had. The key took the students through a decision tree using needle and cone characteristics that became more and more detailed as they moved down the decision tree.

For instance, were needles single or in clusters? Were they round or flat? Were they sharp or soft to the touch? (Left to right, these three are the blue spruce, the bristlecone pine, and the white fir. Spruce needles are round and sharp, pine needles grow in clusters, and firs are flat needled and soft to the touch.)

Differences in cones can be extremely helpful in identifying the species. Left is the seed cone from a Douglas-Fir and to the right the seed cone from an Engelmann spruce.

The end result of the activity: this student has colored conifers in each genus a different color. See what happened?

I bet you can see it without me saying anything. Conifers that are closely related have very similar characteristics; closely related species are very difficult to tell apart and the differences are subtle. In the real world the final sorting is sometimes done by differences in DNA. It was easy after this activity to move into the more abstract topics of classification (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) and then link back to evolution with the tree observations: some closely related species actually grow at different elevations on the mountain. Living in different environments, these trees don’t reproduce with each other and have gradually grown apart into different species.

I struggled to key out conifer samples as a new biology teacher. Nowadays I can identify the tree while driving by on the road and I didn’t bother to drive up into the mountains anymore at the end of my teaching days. I would just pull the car over and clip off a little branch and grab some cones if I could: gone in 60 seconds was my motto! There are some great trees in my local park and the high school where I used to teach had 5 different Colorado conifers on the property. I have a Douglas-Fir in my back yard. I can get at least 11 different conifer samples in a one-hour drive around town. I haven’t taught this activity in years and yet I still look for great trees while out on errands.

Because conifers make me happy!!

After all, who doesn’t love conifers?

The view from my front window this morning.

The Saturday Update: Week 10

This week I have been really busy with appointments and testing. I wrote about the first round of doctor’s appointments in this earlier post (The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report) where I also showed off my fabulous monster orchid in bloom and a pair of finished socks. I finished the week with an echocardiogram and two MRI tests. In the week when COVID-19 arrived in Colorado I walked into 4 different medical clinics feeling like I was walking into the lion’s den. Hopefully there will be some good results soon. Next week it just keeps going as I have two more tests scheduled; after the test results arrive I have appointments with two of my doctors again. Whew!

Knitting

Knitting took a hit this week as I spent too much time driving around completing medical tests to get much knitting done, but I did make some progress on the Pebble Tunic.

Sigh. This is the part of sweater knitting that takes out the faint of heart. I’m knitting down the body of the sweater, and even though I’ve added almost 6 inches of knitting, it feels like I’m not getting anything accomplished. In about 4 more inches I get to add the pockets. Yay! Something different.

I’m knitting the tunic holding a single ply fingering yarn with a silk-mohair lace yarn, and knitting with the two yarns is just a joy. So soft and yummy feeling. My project notes are here. I also started knitting a copy of my son’s kitten Jonesy, which is really fun and involves even more yummy mohair. Check this out.

Once again I’m using the pattern Cat by Claire Garland. If you would like to see what yarns I’m using you can check them out on my Ravelry page.

I’m going to use some embroidery to add more color to the face later (stripes and freckles) but I think that I’m doing pretty good on the color match. I can’t wait to start knitting the stripes in Jonesy’s body.

Garden

All of this medical testing is a little traumatizing: long drives to cold rooms where I battle to control my Raynaud’s while the tests are being run. Today I drove 2 hours to be trapped in an MRI machine for 90 minutes. One hand was solid blue when I got done, but as soon as I got outside into the warmth it pinked up again. After fun like that I need a little reward, don’t you think? After leaving the clinic I drove straight to the nursery and bought my African violet some little buddies. Aren’t these just the cutest?

Aren’t these the happiest guys ever? I found the little pots on the discount shelf: perfect!!

These violets are really small and were next to the miniature plants section, so I’m not sure exactly how big these plants are going to be, but they are blooming like crazy so I have high hopes for these little guys. My original African violet is the one in the background.

Books

Another sigh. I’m still reading the same book, The Overstory by Richard Powers. I’m further along with the story, and, as I anticipated, the cast of characters (all people with a relationship with a tree), have met up and are now activists trying to save the old natural growth forests in the western US. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’m not going to share any more details of the plot, other than I am fascinated by the work of Dr. Patricia Westerford,  one of the characters in the book. She studies mechanisms of communication between trees, and in particular, is studying Douglas firs in one part of the book. Plants are crafty organisms that use lots of mechanisms to respond to the environment. They use hormones to control their growth, and they are able to track the hours of the day (or maybe it actually is the night) so that they bloom at the right time of the year. Of course they are communicating with each other!!

Look at these female cones on my Douglas fir tree. They are kind of goofy looking with those bracts hanging out between the cone scales. They have the only cone like that in our nearby Rocky Mountains. The needles are strange too… they have little tiny stems on them like leaves.

I have a Douglas fir growing in my backyard where I have been babying it for a few years as the honey locust tree next door is outgrowing it and putting it into shade. Poor Douglas fir. They are kind of misfits in our mountains, having no other close relative, aren’t really fir trees at all, and are notorious for pulling a lot of water from the ground. When I attended a forestry workshop in the Denver montaine watershed I was told that the only good Doug is a dead Doug… hey, Dougs need love too! Some of the trees in that forest are turned to sawdust by enomous grinding machines to both thin the forest and reduce water use; some of those thinned trees are evidently Dougs. Douglas firs are really important timber trees, which is why they are in this book, but they aren’t beloved by the biologists who are making sure Denver has enough water in the coming year. Luckily for my Doug I am hiding it from the Denver water board and giving it all the water that it wants. Sadly, it is the only one around and has no other Doug tree to talk to. I wonder if the honey locust ever chats with it?

Have a great week, everyone!! Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it!

Okay, I just had to show off the monster orchid again. I feel happy every time I see this big guy. This is why it is good to garden. 🙂