Leaves! Leaves! Leaves! (and math, too!) September 09 2015, 0 Comments

With summer nearing the end and fall coming fast, do your thoughts turn to leaves? If so, I’ve got a new card set for you -- Leaf Shapes and Margins. I’ve been collecting photos of leaves for many years. I selected 44 species that show a variety of characteristics and turned the images into cards for the classroom. Each card has a single leaf, sans background, along with its common and scientific name. Here's the card for the aspen leaf. It is half a letter-sized page (5.5 X 8.5 inches) in real life. You can see the details of its venation and the structure of its margin.

While I designed this set for older elementary children to use in leaf shape studies, it can be used by any age for appreciation of the beauty and variety of leaves. It takes math and botany to describe leaf shapes according to the Manual of Leaf Architecture by Beth Ellis, et. al., a highly respected professional botany reference. First one must measure the length of the leaf blade, and then divide it into five equal parts. Next one must find the widest part of the leaf blade and see if it falls within the middle fifth, in the basal two-fifths, or in the two-fifths nearest the apex. That determines elliptic, ovate, and obovate shapes respectively. An oblong leaf has about the same width through the middle one-third of the leaf blade. A linear leaf is at least ten times longer than it is wide. Those are the five major leaf shapes. This more precise system of determining leaf shapes replaces an overwhelming number of loosely defined traditional terms. 

Warning – to prevent brain strain, do NOT measure in inches. Use centimeters, and you will appreciate why scientists (and most of the world) use the metric system.

For more math and botany, one can measure the angle of the apex and base of a leaf and decide if these angles are acute, obtuse, or reflex. For the base, there is one more situation, a circular base. The shape of the apex and base are also part of the leaf description. There’s more about this in my book, Plant Lessons: Introducing Children to Plant Form and Function

Margins can have teeth, lobes, both structures, or neither. There are leaves that show all these situations in the set. The leaves include common trees, such as oaks, maple, and elm, as well as houseplants and weeds. Crabgrass comes in handy when you need a linear leaf. No one minds if you pull it up. The bo tree shows how a drip tip looks, not something you will find in your neighborhood unless you live in a tropical area. 

The background information that comes with this new set includes a few sentences about each of the plants whose leaves are shown, a procedure for determining leaf shapes, and a table that gives the description of the leaves so you can check your results.

More than anything, I hope this card set inspires all ages to look more closely at leaves and appreciate the wonderful structures of these food factories for life on Earth.

Happy Fall Botany!

The Big Picture for Botany, Part 2 June 15 2015, 0 Comments

I’m continuing on my commentary about my botany materials and how to choose them, this time with emphasis on the older elementary child.

Children in the 9-12 year-old range have different needs than the younger elementary ones, so they are not likely to find the little booklets and three-part cards of Illustrated Botany for Children attractive. They can, however, use the wall charts (summary charts) from that material to review or to check on terminology. The file for printing the wall charts by themselves is available. See

If you have my book, Plant Lessons: Introducing Children to Plant Form and Function, you have a number of lesson avenues to further botany studies. If your children have had the basics, then you can go deeper into flower structure, plant adaptations, fruits, and seed structure and function.

My botany photo cards set 1, Major Branches of the Plant Kingdom, is a good way to launch studies of the diversity of plants. While I would hope that you can have many of the branches of the plant kingdom represented in classroom houseplants, you are not likely to have many reproductive structures or the rarer plants available. The photos allow children to see structures and plants that you can’t otherwise provide.

If you are basing your botany studies on flowering plant families (an excellent way to structure botany), then you have lots of interesting botany yet to cover. Even if children studied a flowering plant family each month in their three earlier years of elementary, that is only 27 families out of over a hundred that might be found in temperate North America, either as natives or imported ornamentals or as food plants. The total count of angiosperm families is 413 in the last official publication. The number of families that you may experience will depend on the continent on which you reside, and on your local climate and growing conditions. The tropics have a much greater diversity than temperate areas. If children have not studied flowering plant families before, they can dig into them at upper elementary level.

Photo card set 2, Flowering Plant Families, is an introduction to 14 flowering plant families. The photos each have text on the back to start children’s research about these lineages. The families are a sampling across the major lineages of angiosperms. The efile of my PowerPoint presentation on flowering plant families, designed first for adult botany education, is available as a download. This pdf shows 20 families, eleven of which are not in photo card set 2. The PowerPoint slides are illustrated with color photos, and the pdf is at sufficient resolution for printing. Purchasers have the right to print the slides, but only for their own classroom. The slides can serve as research starters, although the photo cards have more information, and the text is in complete sentences vs. the phrases on the slides.

Photo card set 3, 48 Flowers for Study and Sorting, can be used with many levels of students. This set has examples of a wide variety of flower features, and includes a table to help teachers pick the right cards for a variety of lessons, from simple naming of flowers to details of their structure. While younger children will likely be sorting the pictures, upper elementary and secondary students can use the accompanying text cards to learn more about the structural details and the lineages of the plants. For example, the photo that symbolizes this set is a flower of blue flax. It is a eudicot flower with distinct petals that shows radial symmetry. The text card tells that this plant is a member of the rosid lineage of eudicots, and of the fabid lineage of rosids. Its order and family are also given.

How about structuring your botany around food plants? You could combine history of the plant’s domestication, botany of its flowers, and even include to culinary uses. The practical application of farming at middle school level is another layer of this study. Knowledge of flowering plant families can help with the planning of crop rotation and fertilizer applications.

Dig in! Enjoy the unfolding miracles of the plant kingdom that go on all around you.

Tools for appreciating flowers May 26 2015, 0 Comments

I’m going to go off on a tangent before I discuss materials for botany studies with older elementary children. I’ve been researching an important tool for botany studies, a hand lens.

A hand lens (aka pocket magnifier) is very useful for botany studies. Many flowers have parts too small to see without magnification, and there are even whole flowers that are too small to see without this help. Regular magnifying glasses are usually 2-3X magnification, but what you need for botany is something in the 4X to 5X range. With that you can see the texture of stigmas and even the larger pollen grains on anthers.

In years past I have been able to purchase 5X glass hand lenses. The lens folded into a plastic case that protected it while it was being carried outdoors. When I tried to find more of these lenses, I found they were no longer available. I searched the Internet, especially Amazon, looking for a replacement and ordered several to try. Here’s what I found.

The only hand lens that had the magnification described on Amazon was the Bausch and Lomb 4X folded pocket magnifier, which cost about $14. I’m now carrying that one in my pocket as my personal lens, but that is a bit pricey for a classroom set. I found that the inexpensive lenses on Amazon were not as advertised. One that was listed as a 4X was actually a 2X. One with glass lenses came with a large scratch on the lens, and its magnification was half of the description. A “bug loupe” that was labeled 5X is actually closer to 3X, and it focuses only when held above the surface, not when resting on its clear plastic housing, which one presumes was there to contain the bug. My basic message: Let the buyer beware when it comes to inexpensive hand lenses.

To tell the magnification of a simple lens, first measure its focal length. You can do this by focusing an image of a light fixture or the scene outside a window onto plain paper. Then you measure the distance between the paper and the center of the lens. If you measured in inches, divide that measurement into 10. If you measured in centimeters, divide that measurement into 25. The result is the magnification. This means that a 5X lens should focus about 2 inches or 5 cm from the paper. A 4X lens should focus at 2.5 inches, and so on.

In the end, I decided that I will have to settle for plastic lenses, although they will scratch easier than glass. Acorn Naturalists has a small 5X lens for about $4, so you can get several for botany or other work. The lens is about an inch in diameter, which is easier for children to use than the narrower 10X lenses. Ten times is more magnification than one really needs, and the short focal length means that you cut off the light as you bend close to look.

With all these lenses, you need to hold the lens close to your eye and either bend down or bring the object up until it is in focus.

I hope this information helps you find the lenses you need for botany and other outdoor observations. If you have found a better alternative, please let me know.

The Big Picture for Botany April 28 2015, 1 Comment

I’ve heard from teachers that they are not sure what to buy or how my materials fit into their lesson sequence. Here is some information that I hope helps you with those decisions for your botany studies, as well as a link to our complete range of Montessori botany materials

Plant Lessons: Introducing Children to Plant Form and Function. This book is the anchor for your botany studies. It gives you the lessons you need to present children with the parts of plants and what those parts do. It starts with basic lessons and continues through elementary, at least. At middle school level, it is helpful for review and to fill in gaps in plant knowledge that children may have.

For early childhood – Basics lessons on the parts of a plant, kinds of roots, and the parts of a stem, leaf, flower, fruit, and seed. Other lessons on the whole plant – deciduous and evergreen, plant life cycles, growth forms, and basic reproduction (whether the plant makes spores or seeds, or reproduces vegetatively). The five basic leaf shapes, and other leaf lessons as needed.

For first level elementary (6-9 year-olds) – All the lessons are appropriate, although it is highly unlikely that all be needed in the first three years of elementary. If children have not had the basic lessons listed under early childhood, they should receive those first. Past basic lessons, the lessons can be guided by the available plant materials. Lessons such as “Woody Stems in Winter” are best when the real plant material is available. Flower lessons can be matched to the flowers that are available. It is more important to use the lessons to further children’s knowledge of real plants than to march through all the nomenclature. If you follow the development of plants on your school grounds and in the area through the year, and supplement with cut flowers, you are likely to give your children an excellent foundation in botany.

Illustrated Botany for Children is the botany nomenclature booklets and three-part cards for the children’s work in botany. The language level is simple enough that the young reader can manage it with a bit of help. There is a nomenclature booklet and accompanying cards for each of the lessons in the Plant Lessons book. The wall charts (summary charts) give a visual overview of each lesson and help children remember and review the content.

48 Flower Cards for Study and Sorting (Botany photo card set 3) is useful both to use in flower lessons and in follow-up work for the children. The table that comes with the cards tells which cards are useful for a wide range of flower lessons. For example, children can sort cards that show tepals vs. petals and sepals, or they can use the cards to practice finding stamens or pistils.

The Story of Poinsettias and The Amaryllis are children’s books for beginning elementary. These are available as files that you print. They are illustrated with color photos that show the botanical details. When these flowers are in season, the books are a great way to help children see the flowers’ important details. These books also work as a read-aloud for younger children.

Early Spring Flowers is another file that you print to make study and research starter cards. It helps children learn the names of flowers and see those challenging inconspicuous flowers on trees like maples and alders. Older children can learn more about the flowering plant family and other plant classification.

Plants We Eat is a set of six booklets and matching cards for kindergarten and beginning elementary. This material from InPrint for Children is a great way to make lessons on the parts of a plant more meaningful. The set includes a master for copying booklet for the children to color and label.

Leaf Characteristics is another set from InPrint for Children that is very useful for kindergarten and beginning elementary. It helps children learn to observe the pertinent features for leaf description and is a good foundation for more advanced leaf studies.

I'll continue with recommendations for older elementary children and middle school level another day (but you can always email me with your questions). Today I feel the need to get my hands in the soil and observe my own garden plants.



Name That Flower! January 31 2015, 0 Comments

As we strive to reconnect children with nature, learning the names of plants can be a valuable first step. It certainly is an excellent measure to fight plant blindness, that malady that hides the marvelous details and identities of plants. All plants that children encounter are good subjects for learning names, whether the plant is a cut flower, a garden vegetable, a wildflower, or a weed.

Spring is coming extra early to the Willamette Valley, and although I realize that is not the case in most of the US, it is never too early to start thinking about spring and the opportunities for botany studies it presents. The crocuses are blooming here, as well as snowdrops and violets. When spring comes to your school, will the children know the names of the flowers that appear?

My “Study Starter Cards for Early Spring Flowers” can help your children start learning about the local flowers in the US, especially in moderate climates. This material is a print-it-yourself file that has half-page sized cards for 20 flowers and four full pages on early blooming trees. The trees are red maple, bigleaf maple, alder, and hazelnut, all of which have inconspicuous flowers. The flowers in this set include bulbs, perennials, and shrubs.

These cards have more than just the common and scientific names of the flowers. That information is enough for beginners, but elementary children are able to learn more. These and older children need names that will open doors to further learning.The cards include the family, order, and major branches of the angiosperms to which the plant belongs.

The major branches of the angiosperms are the magnoliids, the monocots, and the eudicots. The largest branch, the eudicots, has several branches including the asterids and the fabids. The names of these branches are not capitalized, nor do they carry a rank such as order or class. This is the new world of plant classification, the phylogenetic system that is currently used by botanists. With a little practice, it isn’t hard to learn or understand. My book, Kingdoms of Life Connected can help you. In case you are wondering, the former dicots included eudicots and magnoliids, which are two different lineages. "Eudicots" means "the true dicots."

The photo shows crocuses that were blooming in my garden early last March. They are at about the same stage this year at the end of January. Yes, the weather is strange, as usual. Enjoy your early spring plants, whenever they come.