From Japanese Maples to Monkey Puzzle Trees: Exploring the Harcourt Arboretum

The Year Eight Museum Council students were very fortunate to be able to visit the Harcourt Arboretum on a beautifully sunny autumn afternoon this week. The Museum Council are starting work on a project to create a tree trail at Cheney to celebrate the amazing nature on our doorstep, and the trip offered the opportunity to find out more about trees and nature. 
When we arrived, Dr Lauren Baker, Education Officer, met the group and introduced us all to the arboretum itself. Along with the Botanic Gardens in central Oxford, it forms the University of Oxford's tree and plant collection. Lauren explained how the university had a vast store of seeds from an enormous range of plants, some of which are now extinct in the wild. She showed us the Franklin Tree, which has not been seen in the wild since 1803. Just like animals, trees and plants can also become extinct for a variety of reasons, and the arboretum has some examples of these species. 
Lauren then asked Mr Gimson and I to hold two ends of a long rope; at one end, was a card representing the formation of the universe, and at the other, present day was represented. Students had to answer some general knowledge questions about plants and biology more widely, and when they got a correct answer, chose a card representing a key event in the history of life on the planet, and had to work out where to pin it on the rope. We were assisted by a watchful and rather hungry peacock!
When all the cards were pinned on, we could see the key stages of the development of living things, starting with very simple organisms, and developing from things like single-celled things, to sponges, algae, and all the way to the appearance of humans. We saw how late in the day in the vast story of the planet that we appear, and yet what a dramatic change we have made to the planet. We also talked about the dinosaurs. They existed before flowering plants came into being, and a leading theory is that a meteorite landed, causing a massive dust cloud that blocked out the sun, caused plants to die, which then caused herbivores and finally carnivores to die out. The dinosaurs were large, and not able to adapt to the quick changes caused by this event, and so they died out. 
Lauren explained that when plants or animals go extinct, it is often because they are not able to adapt quickly enough to a change in environment, as evolution is a relatively slow process. 
We went for a walk down one of the arboretum's paths, past some beautiful Japanese Maples, which captured a lot of attention. We also walked past a giant redwood which had been felled after having been struck by lightning. Lauren explained that, due to so many very tall trees in the arboretum, lightning strikes were not unusual. The students took a moment to climb onto the huge trunk of the tree! 
We reached a wooden shelter with a table made from wood from felled trees in the arboretum, where students were introduced to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which posited that evolution happened through a process of natural selection. Lauren pointed out that natural selection could happen if there were variety within species. Darwin was not the only person to have been working on evolution, but he had the money and position to publish his work. Lauren also introduced the group to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who, amongst other things, came up with the now disproven theory that characteristics are inherited through 'soft inheritance', i.e. that acquired characteristics are inherited (such as someone who is a body builder producing muscely children). However, this theory has resurfaced in more recent times in epigenetics. 
We learned that species of plants each had a common name, and also a scientific one (in Latin). The scientific name means that, whatever language is spoken, there is a common name that can be used for all plants. Students were then given the task of finding four different types of trees, and finding their common name and scientific name, and writing a few words describing the tree.
The students observed a douglas fir, whose scientific name is "pseudotsuga menziesii", and is native to western North America. They also found a wollemi pine, a type of tree which dates to the time of the dinosaurs and was once thought to be extinct. Its scientific name is "wollemia nobilis". They also found a monkey puzzle tree (in fact, several), known as "araucaria araucana", native to Chile and Argentina in South America. Finally, they admired the immense height of a giant redwood. Lauren asked the group what words they used in descriptions. She pointed out that words like 'small' were not always distinctive, since trees can be small because they are young. Descriptions like ridged, spiky, with downward turned leaves, and with flowers, were all very useful.
We finished the workshop by discussing the importance of taking the time to pause and notice the immense and beautiful detail inherent in nature. Every tree is unique and there is an enormous amount that can be observed by pausing and looking closely at its bark, its leaves, its height, its cones or flowers, and many other things. In a world of mobile phones and constant distractions, it is easy to ignore what is right in front of us every day. 
We are enormously grateful to Lauren for this inspiring and fascinating workshop, and for enabling us to enjoy the Arboretum on such a lovely autumn afternoon. The Museum Council will be getting started on their project to create a tree trail here at Cheney over the coming weeks!