Project-based Homeschooling: Plant Project

A winged elm (Ulmus alata). We found two fully grown winged elms in our yard when we began our mission to identify and label all the plants and trees in our wooded yard.

Happy Earth Day! To celebrate, I thought I would write about a project we’ve been working on for over a year. My older son has always had a special interest in plants. When he was little, he became obsessed with seeds for awhile. Then he had his carnivorous plant project, and we still grow the carnivorous plants. My younger son also enjoys gardening and likes having his own plants to care for too.

Wild ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) grows abundantly in the woods behind our house, and I love this wild plant. If you pull back the leaves, you can see their bell-shaped flowers.

About a year ago my twelve-year-old became extra interested in plants, especially trees, and he even asked to go to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for his birthday.  He’s been learning how to grow and propagate trees by himself, particularly redbud trees. His younger brother wanted to try this too, so he’s trying to grow some hickories. Needless to say, my refrigerator has been packed with little pots of dirt and seeds this past winter! If they have any success growing these trees, I’ll be sure to write about it in the future.

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea). We found this growing wild by our driveway!
There are some trees that are very difficult to identify, such as this prominent oak in our front yard (center). We think it’s a post oak. (Quercus stellata)

What started all this? Well, we decided to try to identify and label the plants and trees that grow naturally in our wooded yard. I had mentioned trying this a long time ago, but I never did it because it was a huge undertaking. Finally my twelve-year-old wanted to do it in earnest, so we got serious about it.

So far we have identified and labeled 20 different species of trees and plants! It feels like we’ve made a lot of progress, but there are so many plants we still haven’t identified!

Plants we’ve found:

Butterfly Pea (Clitoria ternatea)
Wild Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia)
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatom Communtatun)
St. Andrew’s Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)
Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum)
Pennywort (Hydrocotyle microphylla)

Trees:

Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)
Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)
Hawthorne (Crataegus)
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica)
Water Oak (Quercus alba)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Carolina Basswood (Tilia americana caroliniana)
Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda)
Shortleaf Pine (Pinus echinata)
Holly (Ilex)

Water Oak. (Quercus nigra) Surprisingly, we have only one water oak in our yard, but it’s huge, and it’s near our front porch. It also happens to be my favorite tree in the yard.

As a homeschooling mom, I can say it feels great when your kid gets old enough to do the hard work by himself. This project has led my twelve-year-old to learn how to use a dichotomous key when trying to identify plants and trees. He has used Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by their Leaves (Eastern U.S.), Winter Tree Finder, A Field Guide to Eastern Trees and the Internet to identify several plants and trees. Then he lists the plant names in a notebook. Sometimes he takes photos of them, but I often do that. I’ve also been helping by uploading some of our photos to iNaturalist, which has been a big help in identifying plants and trees too.

We have several white oaks. (Quercus alba) The ink on the label has already faded in just one winter. Time for a touch up.

I also help by writing out the labels that we put on or near the trees and plants (because I have the nicest handwriting). We always put the common name and the scientific name. My yard is starting to look a little bit like the botanical garden….well, I guess it would need to be much neater before I could say that! But I enjoy seeing the labels nonetheless.

We have a few wild black cherry trees. (Prunus serotina) They surprised me one year by producing small, tasty cherries! These trees have beautiful bark too.

This Friday is Arbor Day, so I’m going to use that day to post about a particular tree my son wanted to buy and plant in our yard.

There is one small willow oak (Quercus phellos) trying to grow among the the other hardwoods in the backyard.

I hope you are having a happy spring!

I would love to hear your thoughts, and I sure do appreciate folks who take the time to say 'thank you.' I can't always respond to every comment, but I read and appreciate every one. You do not need to leave a name or e-mail, but unless you have left a message before, I will have to approve it before you see it here.

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