Activities & Experiments

Create “Tree Cookies”


Grades PK-8


Every few years, our horticulture department receives a request from the education department to supply them with material for their volunteers to cut tree cookies—short pieces of wood round like a cookie—to be used as an educational tool and as art inspiration. Typically, we would drive the work roads to look for branches and small trees growing into the path of the work vehicles. The usual species are Acer (Maple), Fraxinus (Ash) and Quercus (Oak). The dimensions need for these cookies are around 3 inches, so there is a limited amount of material to be gathered from each tree.

This year presented us with a plethora of material due to extensive storm damage caused by the early wet snowstorm. We collected branches from red bud, dog wood, magnolia, hop horn beam, birch, beech, red and white oak, rhododendron, lace bark elm, and muscle wood. There was plenty of pine to choose from but as it contains a sticky sap under the bark, we did not collect any for this project.

Branches are harvested in the 2 ½ – 3 ½ inch diameter range and cut into approximately 4ft  to 5ft sections and stored in our horticulture barn for a few  months to dry out. Education has some wonderful and dedicated volunteers to pick up and take home the material to be cut to size on their band saws, approximately 1 inch thick. To make this step easier for them, we will cut the branches into 2ft sections, the resulting cookies will be used by the education department when they offer children activities once again.

What is special about all the different tree species? They have their own unique bark, wood color, tree ring growth, and wood density. And therefore, kids would have the opportunity to appreciate the distinctive characteristics of each type of wood.  Once in a blue moon you may also find something unique, as was found in the base cut of the magnolia in the rhododendron garden. Some trunk rot which formed in the shape of a tree as can be seen in the picture. The tree cookies are used in Holden sponsored events to help children connect with nature.

We always see trees from the outside and talk about the parts and function of the roots, trunk, leaves, flowers and fruits. We talk about how the water flows from the roots up to the leaves to assist in photosynthesis. We also estimate tree age by measuring the circumference of the trunk. A rough estimate is a year for every inch in circumference.

But to learn more you need to see the inside of the tree. Tree cookies allow us to talk about the workings that go on inside the tree. Each year the tree grows and gets larger as the cambium layer makes new cells. This allows us to discuss the parts you cannot see from the outside: sapwood, heartwood, cambium. Learning how the tree grows allows us to better appreciate these amazing plants.

It also allows us to get a better idea of the trees true age and perhaps the circumstances it has encountered. Each ring is a year in the life of the tree. Kids love counting the rings. It is always a contest to see who has the oldest branch.

When you are done with the science, there is plenty of art because they are so pretty. Nametags, coasters, refrigerator magnets, the list is endless. We use them for camps, children’s classes, Arbor Day activities and more. Everyone, including the adults, always want one.

Once the branches are collected by Horticulture & Collections and dried out, we contact several HF&G volunteers who have been our cookie makers for the last several years. No not Mr. Keebler or the elves, but Mick Speers and Dave Snyder. Next time you are at an HF&G event, see if you can snag a cookie or better yet try and make your own.

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