top of page
  • sierrawatershed

What Trees Are These?

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Learn about Tahoe’s native tree species & their unique adaptation through a nature journaling activity.

Grade Level:



Earth Science:

  • Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

Life Science:

  • Adaptation

  • Biological Evolution

  • Inheritance and Variations of Traits

Tools & Materials

  • Nature Journal or Scientific Notebook

  • Pencil

  • Yard clippers or sturdy scissors

  • Colored pencils (optional)

  • Magnifying lens (optional)

  • Ruler (optional)

  • SWEP’s Tree Key

To Do & Notice

1. Question: What types of trees live in the Tahoe National Forest? How are they uniquely adapted to live here?

2. Make a Claim:

  • What tree species do you think you will find in your backyard? Are there more evergreen trees or deciduous trees (see definitions for evergreen & deciduous in the “What’s Going On?” section)? Why?

3. Testing Ideas:

Follow the steps outlined below. If you need more guidance watch this Nature Journal: Evergreen Activity Guidance Video created by Ashley Phillips, SWEP Project Director.

- Go outside! Use scissors to snip a small branch off of an evergreen tree.

- Observe your branch! Use your senses to gather information about your branch and record them in your nature journal (or paper). Use these guided observation prompts to help:

  • “I notice…”: With your chosen branch, make observations (not opinions) of the branch. Use your senses (sight, touch, smell, sound….but don’t taste) to gather information. In your Nature Journal complete the statement “I notice...” with something that you observe about your branch. Try to write as many “I notice...” statements as you can. Examples of statements may include: “I notice that it smells like…”, “I notice that it has short needles”, “I notice the leaves are round”, “I notice there is a rough texture”.

  • “I wonder...”: Next, begin to develop questions about your branch. In your Nature Journal complete the statement “I wonder...” with something that makes you curious about your branch. Examples of statements may include: “I wonder how old…”, “I wonder what tree this is from”, “I wonder why it is shaped this way”, and so on.

  • “It reminds me of…”: Finally, make a connection to this sample with something you are familiar with. In your Nature Journal complete the statement “It reminds me of...” with something that this branch reminds you of (this could be a place, a smell, or a certain experience). Examples of statements may include: “It reminds me of my backyard”, “It reminds me of a place…”, “It reminds me of a special time,” and so on.

- Create a detailed scientific sketch of your branch. If available, use a magnifying lense, ruler and colored pencils to help capture details.

- Identify your branch! Use the SWEP’s Tree Key to identify what tree species your branch sample came from. Record the tree species in your Nature Journal next to your scientific sketch.

- Choose another type of tree to explore. Repeat these steps with another branch sample.

Example #1: This student’s sketch includes notes of their “I wonder…” and “It reminds me of…” statements and includes a detailed description of the different segment structure.

Example #2: This student's sketch includes their “I wonder…” statement noting that they are curious as to why the needles on this branch overlap each other and why the leaf seems to be curved.

4. Analyze & Interpret Data:

  • Did you find more evergreen or deciduous trees in your backyard? What are some of the unique features of the trees you found? How do these features help the trees survive in the Sierra Nevada Mountains? To learn more about tree adaptations see the “What’s Going On” section below.

5. Communicate Findings:

  • Share your results with SWEP by sending us photos or videos of the tree species you found in your backyard. Show us your Nature Journal or scientific sketch. Post your photos on social media and tag us @sweptahoe on Instagram and/or to @swep4 on Facebook. Be sure to hashtag and follow #SWEPsnippets. If you cannot post directly yourself, send your photos or video to SWEP (


What’s Going On

Glossary of Terms:

- Deciduous plants lose their leaves seasonally. These plants shed their leaves at the end of the growing season (fall in our region) and regrow them at the beginning of the next growing season (spring in our region).

- Evergreen plants do not shed their leaves at the end of the growing season, but keep their leaves all year. They are “forever green”. However, they do lose their leaves. Look at the forest floor. It is covered in pine needles. Evergreen trees lose their leaves gradually, not all at once.

- Adaptation: An adaptation is a special trait or feature that allows a plant to survive in a habitat.

Evergreen Adaptations: Evergreen plants are active (awake) during the winter and have special adaptations to help them survive in a cold, dry climate. These include:


  • needle-like leaves allow snow to slip off easily so the leaves can still catch sunlight needed for photosynthesis. The needle-like leaves also prevent the tree from being weighed down by too much snow.

  • Hard, waxy coating on leaves help save water during winter months when water is not available (because it is trapped as ice and snow)


  • Evergreen trees have thick bark that provides insulation and keeps the tree from freezing.


  • The sap of evergreen trees is a sticky, viscous, resinous sap that acts like antifreeze and won’t freeze and expand like the sap of deciduous trees.

Characteristics of Common Tahoe Tree Species:

White Fir: - needles are attached individually - flat, short 1 1/2 - 3 inch needles that do not roll easily between your fingers

Jeffrey Pine - needles are attached in bundles - 3 needles in one bundle - bark has a vanilla caramel scent - gentle pinecone “Gentle Jeffrey”

Sugarpine - needles are attached in bundles - 5 needle in one bundle - largest pine cone in the world

Cedar - flat scaly leaves - leaves are smooth in one direction and rough in the other - seed cones are winged shaped - red stripes of bark

Red Fir - needles are attached individually and typically curve upward from the branch

-needles are triangular or square-shaped and will roll between fingers - branch pattern can appear snowflake-like when seen from below - upright, cylindrical, smooth cones clustered at top of tree

Lodgepole Pine: - needles are attached in bundles - 2 needles in one bundle - small cones no bigger than 2.6 inches

-"burnt-cornflake" textured bark

Ponderosa Pine: - needles are attached in bundles - 3 needles in one bundle -cones are oval, 3 to 6 inches with outwardly curved spines that make them prickly to handle

-puzzle like bark on mature trees


Going Further

1. Explore more of your backyard with your Nature Journal.

  • Find your favorite spot to sit and reflect. Sketch what your backyard looks like during the different seasons.

  • Look for wildlife. Birds, insects, reptiles and mammals all call the Tahoe National Forest home.

2. Sketch the species you find in your backyard.

  • Listen to all the sounds around you while sitting outside. Write a poem about those sounds or focus on one of your favorite sounds to write a poem about.

  • Keep an eye out for the SWEP Snippet: Backyard Biodiversity to learn how to create a map of your backyard and conduct a biodiversity survey.

3. SWEP Staff Pick’s of children's books to keep engaging with the wonders of trees:

Thank you to our many partners for supporting student's science, sustainability and outdoor learning experiences.

Please review SWEP's Terms of Use prior to using this resource.

285 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page