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May 13, 2005, Page 15


Westborough Community Land Trust

Nature Notes in the classroom

Nature Notes has come to the classroom.

At Gibbons Middle School, Allison Gergely’s seventh-grade science students recently used the regular feature in the News as one of their chief sources in their study of local wild plants.

About 100 or 150 years ago, the local plants and animals would have been common knowledge to many residents of Westborough. Not so today. But Mrs. Gergely’s science students are taking the first steps toward becoming the local naturalists of tomorrow.

“I’d like to get their hands back in the dirt,” Gergely said.

She explains that students might come into her class knowing all about South American poison-dart frogs, which they’ve seen on TV nature programs, but they know very little about what lives and grows here.

Emphasizing “place-based learning” and journal-writing, she had her students pair up to create about 60 larger-than-life journal pages in the form of information-packed, hand-drawn posters. Each poster featured a wild plant in Westborough.

In addition to abundant drawings and facts, some posters included tissue-paper models of blossoms. Others had accounts of personal experiences.

Student Maddie Fryer was introduced to pussy willows by her grandfather and fondly remembers their spring tradition of walking together among them.

Tahner Alcock used to ride his bike through lady’s-slippers. He was excited to realize he now had a name for these plants that bloomed and spread each year. He learned to be more careful riding near lady’s-slippers.

Local plants impress

What about our local plants made an impression on the students? Students answered this question in a discussion.

The notion of invasive plants captured their interest:

“Oriental bittersweet was brought over to this country but spread and killed the native plants around it,” said Ray Pattanaik.

A thought which Mark Bernieri added to by saying, “It curls around a tree and strangles it.”

Shweta Athilat noted that purple loosestrife is invasive. “It spreads so much that insects and bugs have fewer of the cattails that they’d rather eat,” the seventh-grader said.

Students were impressed by how many plants were used by Native Americans and others for a variety of things, including medicines.

“With pink lady’s-slipper, you get a rash if you touch it, but it’s been used for medicine, curing vomiting,” said Rachel Afshari.

Shannon O’Neil recalled that Native Americans used checkerberry leaves to make tea, and Mackenzie Gavin added that “there’s lots of it on the trails around here.”

Another student, Ericka Sheridan, said, “Jewelweed was used for poison ivy rash and eczema.”

How plants nourish

Students liked finding out about novel ways that local plants get nourishment and spread their seeds.

“Christmas fern stays green all winter,” said Kendall Paige.

Colin Beron thought that “Indian-pipes have interesting feeding habits. They feed on tree roots.” That thought was followed by Sam Kahn-Arcangeli, who said, “Because of its symbiotic relationship with other plants and bacteria, the Indian-pipes plant does not need sunlight to live. Also, the plant melts if you touch it.”

Switching plants, Alex Eisenbeis said that sundew [local in Worcester County] eats mosquitoes and bugs. “It’s one of a few carnivorous species,” he said. Classmate Justin Strand added, “It has sticky pads, and coils up around an insect.”

In researching witch-hazel, Michelle Murphy found that the plant shoots its seeds up to 30 feet, and classmate Emily Madson said that even though the plant blooms in October, its name is not related to witches.

Finally, Sarah Tebo noted that “with jewelweed, some kids have grown up popping the seed pods.”

Plants and creatures

The plants’ interrelationships with other creatures also caught the students’ interest.

“New England blazing star attracts so many insects and butterflies,” said Sarah Barnes.

Lindsey Sciba discovered that the large butterfly bush has a fragrance and vibrant colors that attract birds and butterflies.

“Winterberry has berries that birds won’t eat until food becomes scarce,” said Andy Hebert.

“Milkweed has white sap that’s poisonous. Monarch butterflies lay eggs on it, which then turn into butterflies that are poisonous to birds, so the butterflies are protected,” said Ruisi Shang.

How has their study of plants changed the way these seventh-graders think? As one student said, “Now plants aren’t just things growing from the ground.”

“I’m more aware of plants, and whether they are endangered or dangerous,” Hebert said.

“Now I know how endangered lady’s-slipper is. I won’t just pick other flowers the way I used to. I’ll leave them instead,” said Afshari.

Ray Pattanaik said, “I’m now aware of how plants adapt to the environment when there’s a change in their environment. When they are brought here from other places, they can take over.”

“I had thought that all plants photosynthesize and follow the same basic life activities. Now I realize there are many adaptations that allow plants to grow in other ways,” said Kahn-Arcangeli.

The seventh-graders’ plant unit fell in February, when Westborough was largely snow-covered, but many students are now planning to look for the plants they studied. “Now I will make it a point to look for purple loosestrife,” said Athilat.

Part of Gergely’s inspiration in focusing her students on local plants came from her work toward a master’s degree in ecological teaching and learning in the Audubon-Lesley program at Lesley University in Cambrige. She cites the words of the 19th-century scientist Louis Pasteur: “The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely great.”

Nature Notes is printed in The Westborough News on behalf of WCLT (Westborough Community Land Trust). Report your own local nature sightings (or check out what others have seen) on WCLT's Facebook page! Find more information about enjoying nature in Westborough, including trail maps and a calendar of events, at the WCLT website

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