Nature Table for April: Buds & Blooms

Nature Table for April

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

The long, patient wait for the weather that we qualify as spring usually takes longer than expected. Mother nature teased us with warm, melty weather more than once this year before spring truly came, and though the seasons changed with the vernal equinox weeks ago, springtime’s leaves, flowers, and creatures have yet to grace us with their presence. Mud season reigns – rivers are running high, driveways are rutted, and boots are still a necessity.

This month’s nature table honors the impatient naturalist: those who need a taste of spring before the earth is ready in order to truly believe that there is an end in sight. April’s collection is made up of branches cut from trees and shrubs for the purpose of forcing buds. Quite common in New England, where spring really takes its time waking up, the practice of forcing buds is both scientifically fascinating and morale boosting. Naturalists can study the process of leaf out and bloom that various trees and bushes go through, and those who cannot await spring with patience can enjoy an indoor dose of spring a few weeks ahead of schedule. 

Outside in nature, plants and trees won’t bloom or leaf out until the conditions are just right: warm weather, lots of sun, plenty of water, and so on. The buds on trees and bushes were formed last year, back before the earth froze. Now, they wait patiently in the warm sun for the time when the night no longer freezes, and when warm daytime temperatures are no longer just a tease. When cut and brought indoors, buds will burst very rapidly – especially in comparison to their outdoor counterparts. The constant warmth found indoors signals to the buds that it’s time, and they begin to emerge. Each tree or bush blooms differently, but most begin to crack open to reveal bits of green bit by bit before opening fully.

Not only is it lovely to have freshly bloomed, locally sourced leaves and buds brightening your indoor space, it is fascinating to observe the way in which different species hatch their foliage. Some cut branches will leaf out within a day or so when brought indoors, while others take much longer. Similarly, some species have tiny buds whose leaves come out small but grow steadily once they’re out, while other species’ buds start out much larger and produce new leaves of a much larger size. The leaves themselves, too, are fascinating, and the process of an indoor leaf out can reveal the way in which leaves are wrapped up within the trees’ buds.

In order to make forcing buds become a truly scientific activity, collect a variety of branches, and cut a few samples from each tree or bush included in your collection. Small branches should be cut at a length between one and two feet, and it helps to hammer the cut end of the stems before they’re placed in water (this isn’t crucial, but it does help – perhaps try comparing hammered branches to some non-hammered ones). Once brought inside and hammered (or not), branches should be kept in as sunny a location as possible. The easiest branches to force buds on are forsythia, apple, cherry, dogwood, and pussy willows. Watch carefully, and check frequently – leaf out happens incredibly quickly indoors!

This month’s nature table is made up of branches cut from:

  • apple trees (3 kinds)
  • forsythia
  • burning bushes
  • sugar maple trees
  • oak trees
  • mystery ornamental bushes

Some titles to support studies of leaves, buds, and phenology in general include:


Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.

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