Help me think of ecological & botanical demos that are kinda magical.
April 26, 2016 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I have been told to lead a nature walk & workshop for a Girl Scout event that has a "magic" theme. This will be in the Pacific Northwest in a coniferous-riparian setting, and these are 7-17 year old girls. Yeah, I know. that's a broad range of ages. That's why I need your help. I'm a botanist. EVERYTHING sciency and outside is magical to me, so I'm hoping to make a list of very quick (<5 minute) demos with things found outside that have a big impact or are somehow surprising to a non-science audience. I'd like to avoid the pointing-and-telling kind of nature activity - I want these concepts to show themselves off somehow. Apparently I'll be doing this multiple times throughout the year so seasonality doesn't matter.

Here are things I have thought of so far:
sniffing centipedes for their almondy cyanide
projectile seeds (ballistichory) - flowering dogwood
eating nettle leaves without getting stung (i'll do the eating, not the girls!)
snapping dogwood leaves in half to see the fibers
sundews catching & eating their prey
posted by bravecanary to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how demonstrable this is, but caterpillar -> cocoon -> butterfly has always seemed like transmogrification to me.

Also, foxfire, which I have only ever seen once.
posted by workerant at 10:03 AM on April 26, 2016

Do you have touch-me-nots where you are? Because I was in my 20s when my now-wife showed them to me and they blew my mind. You just sort of touch them and they explode!

If you can dig for Indian Cucumber, it's kind of fun to pass them around to munch on. Not really sciencey but still kind of neat.

If the kids are old enough to know the Fibonacci sequence you could point out the spirals on a pinecone and other things that follow the sequence.

sniffing centipedes for their almondy cyanide

Better yet, burn them with fire because centipedes are terrible and gross and please don't make kids sniff them or even look at them.
posted by bondcliff at 10:11 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I suppose the intersection of botany and magic is herbalism. I recently wondered about planting based on lunar cycles like "dark of the moon". I would guess that if there is any scientific validity to this it is due to how the light of the moon influences insects, but I'm not sure. Harvesting herbs at different times of day for greater potency is also interesting.

So it's pretty clear I don't know anything about botany, but when I do garden, the idea of plants coming from seeds, especially tiny seeds, seems amazing to me.
posted by puddledork at 10:12 AM on April 26, 2016

Anything with any kind of bioluminescence will be awesome.

My scouts like baby plants because they're cute. If there's any kind of interesting seedling behavior you know of that you can show them, that could go over really well.

My scouts also like things they can take home to keep/share, so if you're able to send them home with something (can you make seed bombs?) they'll love it.

You can explore all the official GS badges here if you want to get a general idea for the kinds of things they may have seen and done already, if that's helpful.
posted by phunniemee at 10:30 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


You could teach them a few plants with properties of various sorts (it smells nice to attract bees! it smells bad to ward off potential grazers!) and have them think about how these qualities could be useful and come up with their own recipes. then split them into groups and have them collect a few different botanicals and make "potions?" Could be like a treasure hunt.

I had my nature campers make pet pillows and stuff them with daisy fleabane--so they had a little item to take home at the end of the day.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:35 AM on April 26, 2016

Tree rings are neat and give a good chance to lay out the history of your area, which then you can continually search for signs large and small of. Secret knowledge is the best.

Teach how leaves are classified (alternating, lobed, et cetera), then set them loose to ID plants based just on that. Then show them how the overall shapes of trees are fairly definitive as well, so you don't even need the leaves. It's a long-term sort of magic trick, but I'm continually surprised how much better I, a layperson, am at identifying plants than most people I meet, just from a brief session with a forest ranger in fifth grade.
posted by teremala at 10:36 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not too familiar with the Northwest, but in the Northeast, I've used the following:

Smelly plants always had more mileage than I expect. Not necessarily 'wow these pine needles sure smell pine-y,' but rather unexpected, strongly smelling things like spicebush, skunk cabbage, white birch (in the northeast).

Do you have any quartz around? Rub two pieces together in the dark and observe triboluminescent light.

Dissecting an oak gall (preferably one where the wasp has already exited unless you want to kill an insect in the demo) is fun.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:38 AM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Chromatography? The first chromatographic separations involved separating colored components from plant matter. Seeing that, for instance, green leaves or autumn-hued leaves have many separate color components would be cool.
posted by Sublimity at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2016

Blue-staining bolete mushrooms are pretty cool.
posted by Flamingo at 10:44 AM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

Long ago I used to do this stuff as an environmental educator. Some hits:
Whistling with acorn caps
Edibles - make white pine needle or hemlock tea (it's not the poisonous hemlock) ; smell black birch bark (if you have it) - smells like root beer
Maple seed copters, and tasting maple sap (even if you don't have sugar maples - even red and silver maples, etc. have slightly sweet sap
Camouflage is a great example of animals and plants doing "disappearing" tricks. A very popular camouflage game -that works well with almost all ages - is to give kids different-colored pipe cleaners that they make into "animals" and place somewhere, in plain view, along a stretch of trail say 50 feet long. Then everyone has to walk the trail and count how many they find. You can use the results to talk about habitat, camouflage, seasonal color variations, etc. I found a lot of lesson plans for this by Googling "camouflage pipe cleaners" - they're mostly PDFs so I won't link, but you can easily find them.

If you're going to do it often, you might enjoy getting these really easy and fun trainings: Project Learning Tree, Project Wild. Both of these come with huge curriculum manuals full of outdoor environmental science games and activities.
posted by Miko at 10:45 AM on April 26, 2016

Another resource: Association for Environmental Education
posted by Miko at 10:47 AM on April 26, 2016

Anything you can eat will be popular.
posted by Toddles at 11:01 AM on April 26, 2016

Some lichen makes natural dye. It's fun to test it: you drop something on it with an eyedropper--I can't remember if it was bleach, ammonia, or vinegar--and if it changes color, it's the right one to use to dye your stuff.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:03 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

When the leaves start turning colors, sometimes you can see what areas are warmer or colder based on patches of leaves turning sooner. In the spring, the mechanism that gets trees to conclude it is time to grow new leaves is also nifty (and not really understood by me).

How plants use wind, animals etc to distribute their seeds. This is incredible to me. They just sit there, but thistles latch onto fur and seeds with wings take flight on the wind and their babies travel and see the world and put down roots elsewhere. Hello!

Defense systems of plants are also amazing. Some poison the ground around them to drive out competitors. They communicate with each other when assaulted by insects. Etc. Again: they just sit there. Yet, not. They engage in all kinds of activities -- while just sitting there -- that animals can only perform by moving around, being obviously vocal, etc.
posted by Michele in California at 11:22 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have any Sensitive Plants where you are? Touching those and watching them move still blows my mind.
posted by LeeLanded at 11:27 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure where in the Pacific Northwest you are, but things that fascinated me and seemed magical in OR forests as a child: nurse logs, stripping young Douglas fir branchlets of their needles and bark and making bracelets, water boatmen and water striders, caddis fly larvae and how they build their cases, different kinds of fungus and mushrooms and how they decompose logs differently, and berry identification.
posted by umwhat at 11:40 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, also - I took a class in college that was about Native uses for plants in the Sierra nevadas - and the whole class was magical for slightly jaded college students.
posted by umwhat at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2016

If you have Balsam trees and calm bodies of water you can do a balsam sap & twig "motorboat"
posted by pdinnen at 12:04 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, pro tip: if you teach acorn whistling, teach it as the very last thing. Otherwise you'll be listening to acorn whistling through the entire program.
posted by Miko at 12:37 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and here's a couple things that always made me feel like a smarty pants woodsy person:

• The root of Queen Anne's Lace smelling like carrots because it's actually a member of the carrot family. Wikipedia now tells me: Extra caution should be used when collecting D. carota because it bears a close resemblance to poison hemlock. In addition, the leaves of the wild carrot can cause phytophotodermatitis, so caution should also be used when handling the plant. It has also been used as a method of contraception and an abortifacient for centuries.

• Pulling the individual pieces off of a clover blossom and sucking on the little sweet part at the base.

• Part of me still doesn't believe that the oak gall thing is real.
posted by redsparkler at 12:42 PM on April 26, 2016

If at night, find scorpions with black light.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:41 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Better yet, burn them with fire because centipedes are terrible and gross and please don't make kids sniff them or even look at them.

That's not what I thought when I was a kid. I still don't think it today. Life in all its forms is magical and beautiful and so much fun to observe. That's the best lesson of all.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:47 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is all super-sciencey, and while kid-me would have found it cool, there were girls in my scout troop who would have been super bored by anything without sufficient goofiness. Consider some plug and play component to the nature walks, like a sheet with a scavenger hunt: make a list of the wand woods used in Harry Potter so they can identify the trees, build a fairy house out of found objects (bark, pine cones, leaves, twigs, mushrooms) and place it where it can be seen from the path, talk about fairy rings and where to find them (which okay would be in a meadow not a forest), name a few herb-lore "witchy-sounding" plants that they might be able to see.

You'd get to do actual interactions about sciencey things too, this would be more a background activity. But for some kids, glueing pinecones together into a fairy house is more naturey than "come up here and sniff this centipede".
posted by aimedwander at 3:27 PM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Blow soap bubbles with a tree cookie.

Get a thin slice of a branch, maybe 1/4 inch thick. This is your tree cookie. Smear one cut face of your 'cookie' with soap and water. Then, smoosh your lips to the dry face and blow. You should get some nice foam, and maybe a big bubble or two, from the soapy side.

Hooray for plant vascular tissue!
posted by Guess What at 4:44 PM on April 26, 2016

Oh, forgot to add: the tree foam vascular tissue demo still works if you put paper towel between the tree cookie and your lips. If everyone gets a new paper towel then they can hygienically share the tree cookie.
posted by Guess What at 4:47 PM on April 26, 2016

This is a bit broader an activity. I went on an eco-psychology nature hike, and part of it involved quietly walking while becoming aware that the animals, etc. both visible and invisible were perceiving us as we moved through their environment. It was an extremely powerful experience, feeling seen in that way.
posted by amileighs at 9:34 PM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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