Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

A Little Help from Their Friends: Download PDF

This information is taken from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Kids for Trees. For more information and activities about trees, check their website.

SUBJECTS: Science, Language Arts
SKILLS: observation, critical thinking, communication, interpretation
OBJECTIVE: Students will learn that trees spread their seeds around with the help of the wind, water, birds, animals, and people.


Trees can't move; they can only stand in one place. And yet they must move their seeds from place to place. If seeds just fell to the ground under the tree, they could not grow. There would not be enough light or water. The parent tree takes up too much room. But tree seeds don't just fall to the ground. They are moved to new locations in a number of ways.


Blowing in the Wind. Some tree seeds simply blow in the wind to new locations. Cottonwood trees, for instance, wrap their seeds in fluffy cottonlike material that easily blows great distances. Silver maple trees have seeds with wings on them like little helicopters. They twirl through the air and land some distance form the parent tree.

Other trees, willows for example, grow along stream banks. They may drop their seeds into the water so they are carried and planted downstream.

Flying Seeds. Some seeds don't need the wind to fly. They just hitch a ride with a bird. Many trees, especially fruit trees, are planted by birds. The seeds of these plants are inside their fruit. Birds pick the fruit, fly away to eat, and drop the seeds. Quite often a fruit tree grows where a seed has been dropped by a bird.

Animal Planters. Squirrels are very important tree planters. Squirrels hide food away for the winter, especially acorns, walnuts, and hickory nut. Squirrels bury so many nuts that they don't always remember where they buried them. Inside every nut is a tree seed which, thanks to a forgetful squirrel, can become a full size tree. Other animals plant seeds, too. Plant seeds can cling to the fur of a dog, a fox, or a raccoon, only to fall off and grow in some distant location.

How We Plant Trees. People plant trees. Not always do we plant trees on purpose. In nurseries, trees are started from seed in trays in greenhouses or outdoors in seedbeds. Around our homes we usually plant trees once they have become healthy young saplings. But people also plant trees accidentally. Like animals they may carry plant seeds that cling to their clothing. Like birds, people eat fruit and may leave the seeds behind to grow. Every student has probably picked up an acorn, an apple, a walnut, a buckeye, or a pine cone and carried it to a new location. He or she may have planted a tree and not even known it.

Inside every seed is a complete plant ready to grow. This is easy to demonstrate to the class with lima beans. Soak some dried lima beans overnight then peel off the seed coat. Have students gently open them. A curled plant can be seen inside, ready to emerge.

Plant some trees right in the classroom. Have students bring in tree seeds nearly any kind, from maple seeds to apple seeds, to avocado or peach pits, will do. Plant them in small flower pots. Put a layer of pebbles in the bottom of the pot covered with about 3 inches of tamped soil. Add a seed and cover it loosely with soil. If you use potting soil, mix it half and half with sand. Water the soil and label the pot. Water again only when the soil becomes dry. Keep a piece of plastic over the top of the pot until the seed emerges. Keep the pots in a warm sunny location. The plants that emerge can grow into full-size trees.

Using a good guide to tree identification (see references), take a neighborhood nature hike in the late spring and identify as many tree seeds as possible. Be sure to check the tree as well as the ground around it. If you encounter a flowering tree, point out that the seeds are developing in the flowers. In the fall, bring as many seeds as possible back to class, identify them with an identification book, and discuss how they might be dispersed naturally.

As a class, read "Johnny Appleseed" by Steve Kellogg. The story provides excellent discussion points not only on planting trees, but also on the environment and the relationship between people and nature.

Using a collection of seeds (walnut, pecan, acorn, etc.), place each seed in a sock and ask the students to reach inside the sock and identify the seed by its size and texture.

Present students with a variety of tree seeds, either actual seeds or pictures, and have them describe as many ways as they can think of that each particular seed might be dispersed from the parent tree. Creative possibilities should be encouraged.

Take a field trip to a nursery where trees are started from seeds or cuttings in a greenhouse or in an outdoor seedbed, transferred to fields, and balled and burlapped for replanting. Also have students view the different types and sizes of trees at the nursery. Take a field trip to a nature preserve or wooded park and observe the distribution of the different types of trees. Discuss how these trees may have been planted: by people, by animals, by birds or by the wind or water.

seed, fruit, nut, sapling, nursery

Next lesson - Where Does the Green Go?

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