Identification of trees and plants in the forest is all about learning to feel at home in the outdoors. Learning to name the things we see makes the natural world more familiar. Seeing individual shapes of trees and plants amongst the multiple shapes of the wooded terrain gives us a sense of belonging and a rising sense of the intelligence in the creation. With summer soon to be upon us and with spring full on, trees and plants are sprouting their leaves and putting out flowers (as well as fruit) making trees easier to identify during your eleven-year-old (EYO) Scout outings.
I was not always good at tree and plant identification. To improve my skills I did several things. First, I read the Boy Scout Handbook, which has a great section on ways to identify trees and plants from a general perspective. The information in the Boy Scout Handbook is good to know for several reasons. First, it is great primer on the different parts of trees and plants, from the trunk and the branches down to the characteristics of the leaves. Second, I always want to find ways to get Scouts to read the Boy Scout Handbook. Telling them to turn to a specific page to look something up encourages them to pick up the handbook; if for nothing else to see if you have the page number correct (like page 204 for Nature).
You will need a good tree book (I chose the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees found in most book stores and available on line). Since the types of trees differ across our great country, tree identification books can greatly assist you in determining if the tree you are trying to identify is normally found in your area. I made a local guide for my EYO Scouts by using the Internet to pull pictures of trees and plants and develop a passport booklet for the Scouts to use on our outings. As they walked through the woods, they could pull out the booklet, identify the tree or plant, and keep record of the number of plants they were able to find. I simply made a table in Microsoft Word, and copied and pasted the pictures into the passport. The passport contained the plant name, picture of the leaves and bark, as well as a place to sign-off that they located that plant. Additional resources include booklets from a local extension service, libraries, and nature centers. All of which have guides and photos of local trees and plants.
The other thing I did was to make up my mind to teach tree and plant identification at the next Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills (IOLS) course put on by my local Scout district. The challenge of teaching tree and plant identification to other adult Scouters solidified my knowledge of trees and plants and better prepared me to teach my EYO Scouts. The district Scouters who ran IOLS were very helpful in my preparation. Just as the young EYO Scouts need to challenge themselves, the adult EYO Scout leaders should set goals for self-improvement in their skills and abilities—not only by attending Scout leader training, but also by teaching Scout skills to others. After teaching in IOLS, I had not become a tree and plant expert, but I was markedly better prepared with knowledge of local trees and plants, and I had other adults I could call on for assistance.
In teaching EYO Scouts about an individual tree, I found it worthwhile to be able to tell stories about a type of tree. In Virginia, where I currently reside, pointing out the dogwood as the state flower and tree or mountain laurel as a poisonous evergreen piqued the interest of my young Scouts. Since it is a requirement for EYO Scouts to identify poisonous plants in the local area (Tenderfoot requirement 4b), showing the EYO Scouts how poison ivy often originates right next to the base of a tree—as opposed to the wild grape that plants its roots 2 to 3 feet away from the base of trees—assisted them in determining correct identification. When the Scouts returned from their outing, we would build individual displays for them to teach other Scouts about trees and plants native to our area . . . though we were extremely careful with poison ivy, sumac, and other hazardous species.
It is also important for them to recognize that wood from pine trees burns faster than hardwoods, such as oak or walnut. Choosing pine to start a fire is a good choice, but knowing that hardwood logs can sustain a fire provides the EYO Scout with knowledge that makes him a woodsman versus being just a camper.
As Webelos, your EYO Scouts may have done the Into the Woods, an Arrow of Light adventure. If they did, they would have been introduced to the different groups of trees as well as the parts of a tree. As part of the adventure they would have identified six different trees and six different plants native to your area. They may or may not remember what they did for this adventure, but you will be able to expand on what they learned. A day filled with hiking through different terrains—observing what lives and grows in your area—will catch your Scouts’ imaginations and help them appreciate nature in all its diversity. Helping EYO Scouts learn about nature teaches them the beauty of God’s wonder-filled creation. It brings them closer to their Heavenly Father and how all elements of nature fit into His special plan for all of His creation. Have fun identifying plants and trees.
-Stan Stolpe has served in multiple Scouting positions at the unit, district, council, regional, and national levels in the U.S. and overseas. He resides in Alexandria, Virginia, serving in the Mount Vernon Virginia Stake. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.