Category Archives: Plant Identification

Understanding Plants (and learning to listen)

I had a physical reaction to a plant this week.  Not a rash, not a cure, but unexplained feelings after handling the plant – I scrubbed my hands and experienced uneasiness.  My body understood the plant’s communication, but my brain didn’t listen.

Tod has talked many times about “feeling” (without touching) a tree in front of us when walking blindfolded, about being aware of our surroundings so we can close our eyes and point to the different plant species, about truly looking at a plant and noticing its individual nuances and more.  All of these exercises bring us closer to realizing a nature connection.

On Monday, Tod stopped beside the trail and picked two leaves.  He asked us to think about how they made us feel.  Then he held them up and said, “Raise your hand if you would rather eat Leaf A (a soft, heart-shaped leaf) or Leaf B (a pointed, thin, slightly jagged-edged leaf).”

I recognized the plants, but even if I hadn’t, Leaf B looked evil.  Most of the group agreed that they would stay away from Leaf B, even the kids who didn’t recognize the plant, which was a type of nightshade.  This nature connection exercise, on the side of the trail, was quick and basic.  Tod illustrated the plant’s communication with us, if we took the time to be aware.

We should NOT eat any plant without an absolutely, positive identification!

The next day, I was having a “I-homeschool-and-never-celebrate-miscellaneous-holidays” moment.  No doubt public school kids would be partying for St. Patrick’s Day.  Cutting out shamrocks, having green cupcakes and golden chocolates, reading limericks with gusto.  All the things my kids are totally lacking from their education.

I needed some St. Patrick’s Day inspiration and, as luck would have it, I remembered some green flowers had just bloomed in a corner of our yard.  Green flowers!  The perfect solution at 6am for an unprepared-homeschool-holiday-mom.  I didn’t know what the flowers were, but they were green and that would help relieve my lack of holiday planning.

What caught me off guard, was my feeling as I was cutting the beautiful flowers.  I felt uneasy.  I didn’t know what they were, and I needed green decorations, so I brought them into the house and put them on the table.  And, immediately, felt like I needed to wash my hands which, honestly, I rarely do after cutting flowers.  Hmmm…what was Tod teaching us yesterday??

To illustrate my lack of trust in my body’s reaction, I left them on the table and we admired them all day.


The next morning, I laughed off my flower-mistrust instinct over breakfast with Trevor.  Then, I decided to research the green flower, because I suddenly realized I was having a nature study FAIL.

Turns out, it’s of the genus Helleborus.  It will make us and our cats vomit if ingested.  Some sources say it can irritate or burn our skin.  “Poisonous.  Handle with gloves.”  Wow.  How about listening to the nature awareness part of my body that’s been screaming since I cut the flowers??

John Muir Laws has several great journaling exercises surrounding plants.  One of my favorites, which helps us “know” a plant, is called “Zoom In, Zoom Out”.  You can find this exercise in his free journaling curriculum.  The activity creates a study of an individual plant, zooms out to document it with its surrounding plants, then zooms in on the details of one part.


Butterfly bush. I quickly sketched the plant’s location, studied the leaf and flower, then zoomed in on the individual flowerettes and a cross-section of the stem.

I love this activity!  When doing it, I always find a particular detail I had never noticed before.  It let’s me spend time “knowing” the plant and solidifying the identification in my mind.

Animal Signs and Tracks at Gazos Beach

We found great animal signs and tracks at Gazos Beach last week.  While we were having our opening circle, we watched a rabbit nibbling on some plants just a few feet away.

IMG_0008We investigated its snacking spot and we were able to see that it was eating some plantain.


The rabbit’s bite marks are diagonal, because of the difference between its bottom and top teeth.  The plant has a clean cut, not a torn look, like the grass we found on the beach a little later.


The edges of the grass were relatively straight across, but ragged, as a deer would take a mouthful and pull away to tear its bite from the plant.

As we continued down the beach, we followed deer tracks toward the creek.  After crossing the creek, we found coyote tracks!  Cambria has wanted to cast tracks for a while.  Unfortunately, remembering the supplies and finding great tracks have not coincided.  Until now!


In addition to the coyote, we found bobcat and rabbit tracks which were clear enough for Cambria to use her Plaster of Paris.


I like looking at this side-by-side comparison of the bobcat and coyote tracks.  We can clearly see the difference in overall shape (round vs. oval) and the lack of claw marks in the bobcat’s track.

Lastly, we found a natural mystery.  The coyote tracks came and went from these animal remains.

What is it?

Cordage Making

Last week Tod challenged us to find a plant in nature and make our own cordage.  He reminded us how it’s made by twisting in two opposite directions and that plants with long, strong fibers are needed.  He demonstrated with some store-bought raffia and with some inner redwood bark, which we found during our hike.

We didn’t have group this Monday, but we embarked on our own nature study of plants that make strong cordage.  We found that Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a great plant for cordage.  We went down to the creek to see if there were any Stinging Nettles still in leaf next to the dry creek bed in our drought-ridden yard.  We found a few and I stripped the leaves and stems of the nettles with my gloved hands.

Stinging nettle on the right, hedge nettle on the left.  Note the dangerous, sharp teeth of the stinging nettle!

Stinging nettle on the right, hedge nettle on the left. Note the dangerous, sharp “teeth” on the leaf edges of the stinging nettle!

We were left with long, strong stems that we can handle without gloves.
Next, we cracked the stems by smashing them flat with our hands.  By doing this, we were able access and strip off the outer “bark” of the stinging nettle.  The inside of the stinging nettle is hollow and has a woody layer.  The outside is very thin and is made of the long, strong fibers that we need to make cordage.

photo 2We stripped the three stems as best we could.  It’s difficult to work around the leaf connection spots and we ended up with quite a few strips that seemed too short or too narrow.

photo 3

Most of these pieces were about a 1/4 inch wide.  The picture doesn’t show their characteristics well.  They were floppy and green.  We left them on the table to dry over night…

photo 4

They shrunk up A LOT!  They were like a thick string after sitting out.  We were able to bend them and they didn’t snap, even though they seem brittle at first touch.  They were strong; when we tried to pull them apart they didn’t break.  We took a piece each and started our cordage making.

The cordage is thin, but very strong!

3 Things I Love About the Marsh

We returned to the Marsh and, as always, I feel so grounded and at home in this special place.  My previous post has more details on my ties to the Marsh, but here are the 3 Things I Love About the Marsh:

1) Birds, birds and more birds.  I swear, there are new shorebirds at the Marsh that were never there before!  Are these rare finds?  Nope, but we are becoming more aware and discerning as we progress through our nature journey.  Today, we discovered Marbled Godwits (Limosa lapponica), Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) and Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps).  If you ask me, they’ve never been seen at the Marsh before!

I also experienced a new “connection” bird.  This is my own special category of: “it’s a part of me and I really know that bird (or flower, mammal, etc.)!”  I felt that I finally KNEW the sound and site of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).  The Killdeer has been referenced as a “noisy little plover” and has two distinct black bands on its neck.  It’s a small, graceful shorebird.

We saw many Great Egrets, which the kids had researched, but no Snowy Egrets today.

2) Flowers.  Similar to my “rare” bird sightings, I don’t remember being aware that there were flowers on the beach until we joined our nature group.  If someone had asked me what flowers I saw at the beach 6 years ago, I would have said: “Ice plant.  That’s the only beach flower in existence.”  I didn’t know ice plant is an aggressive, non-native at our beaches and I wouldn’t have recalled seeing other flowers.

Now, I have many favorites and I love to see them in bloom every year.

3) Eudora.  Last, but not least, is Eudora the Climbing Tree.


Isn’t she beautiful?  A non-native Eucalyptus in our Marsh, but irresistible to all who visit.  She requires touching, listening and climbing of all ages – a calming nature experience.  If you are lucky enough to visit her, put your ear against her smooth, cool bark and listen to her music!

What do you love about a favorite nature spot you visit?

“New to us” Plants & Fungi in the Redwoods

Today we hiked in Purisima Creek Redwoods. We shared our elderberry journals.

Cambria's journal.

Cambria’s journal.


Elijah’s journal.

My journal.

My journal.

When we were done, Tod asked us to close our eyes. Then, he asked us to point to an elderberry, to see if we had noticed them surrounding us. It was great to see how the kids were aware of the elderberries, now that they had journaled it in detail.

I ran back to the car to put our large journals away, so I didn’t need to lug them along. A winter wren flew right in front of me, landed on a branch and and started to sing his heart out! What a great nature moment to start out my day!


Tod says winter wrens have spider power to sing that loud. Spiders are a main food for them. They are such tiny birds, but their song is loud, long and powerful (listen here).

After several sitings of banana slugs in precarious climbing situations, we decide they must have seen the movie Turbo. They were not sticking to the ground today. We saw one perched on the top of a stinging nettle plant, one sliming its way along an elderberry, high above the creek, and one near our favorite snack spot climbing straight up a thimble berry plant!

Turbo slug in red elderberry, high above the creek.

Turbo slug in red elderberry, high above the creek.

As we walked along the trail a group of parents, myself included, stopped to identify this flower:


The mystery plant wasn’t in my favorite redwood forest book (Plants of the Coast Redwood Region by Kathleen Lyons & Mary Beth Cuneo-Lazaneo), but it reminded me of two other plants called alum root and coral bells, except the leaves on this plant were on the long flower stalk. These plants also have long flower stalks, but the leaves were all at the base, usually spread out on the ground.

When we got home, the kids and I looked up alum root. We found that our mystery plant was in the same Family and is called fringe cups! It was a cool way to discover the name, by researching a similar plant. Lucky us!

As we approached the creek, we found a plant with bright, glossy green leaves. It looked familiar, but had no flowers to give us a clue. Tod gave us a hint this time: it will have flowers and they will turn into beautiful berries. Red clintonia!


I pointed out Solomon’s seal to a couple of the other moms. We discussed the difference between it and Hooker’s fairy bells, since the leaves are similar. The Solomon’s seal smells delicious. Warm and full of spring!

Here’s Cambria’s picture:


We visited the Hobbit Hut that we made with S & H last year. It was still standing and the door was in place. The inside was dry and we were proud of our creation!

While we were playing camouflage by the creek, S found a mushroom and Tod was very excited. S is very focused on mushrooms right now. She has a mushroom lab at her house and she’s checked out every book in the library. She a voracious reader and wants to be a mushroom scientist when she grows up.

The mushroom was a candy cap. It smells more and more strongly like maple syrup as it dries and people make cookies out of them.

Before heading back to the parking lot, we had some sit spot time with our families. We wrote a quick paragraph about something we saw from our spot. Tod asked us to start with “I am a…” and then describe it and tell what it teaches us. The kids and I were drawn to a spot by the creek where we could see a raven in the water.

Here are our stories: 

Raven by Cambria, Elijah and Emily

I am a raven. I hear my friend calling. I am sleek and black. I am smart and strong and I strut up the creek. I feel lumpy rocks under my feet. I have a big and powerful wingspan. Other birds alarm when they see me. The raven teaches me to be brave and curious. The raven teaches me to sneak up and attack.

Water by Elijah

I am water rushing down to my destiny. I am cold and wet. I am shimmering from the sun. The water teaches me to go along with our day.

Tod by Cambria and Elijah

I am Tod. I know nature. Nature is my friend. I am a super-cool nature man. I love nature. Tod teaches me that nature is a place where you can find out things. Tod teaches me that nature is a beautiful place and you can find art everywhere.

We had closing circle near the parking area. I love listening to everyone tell their favorite part of the day. It’s great to hear what the kids and adults found important in their walk and it’s a fun reflection time. Sometimes the group will remind me of a special moment that slipped my mind and I’ll add it to my journal.

Back home, I start drawing the fringe cups in my journal and the kids join me. Both of them want to draw the new mushrooms we saw. It’s a wonderful way to close the afternoon.


Hard at work journaling. Researching and sketching.


My “new” plants. Red clintonia and fringe cups.

Cambria's mushrooms.

Cambria’s mushrooms.

Elijah's mushrooms.

Elijah’s mushrooms.

Assignment: We have two assignments this week, because we aren’t meeting next Monday.

  1. Make a tidepool guide for our trip to Maverick’s tide pools in two weeks.
  2. Send a picture of our nature area or collection spot to the group.

This inspired us to clean our nature “table” and organize everything. Cambria grouped all the beach items on one side, including our new addition – the bobcat plaster of paris prints! Elijah group all the seeds and cones on the windowsill.


Our nature “table” is the top of a waist-high shelf near our front door. It’s a nice way for everyone to see it when they arrive and it keeps most of the nature items contained in one area. There are bits of nature all over our house, but we definitely keep the fragile and potentially stinky items on the table.

Inventory: elderberries losing flowers and we saw the first signs of berries, hooker’s fairy bells, trillium flowers are gone, Wilson’s warbler, robin, raven, hound’s tongue, miner’s lettuce, chickweed, stinging nettle, hedge nettle, rough-skinned newts, banana slugs, redwood violets, scarlet waxy caps, fringe cups, thimble berries starting to appear, red clintonia not blooming yet, fat Solomon’s seal blooming, horsetails, candy cap, trail plant, clown millipede