Monday, August 20, 2012

What is a Leaf Skeleton?

Leaf skeleton floating just below the surface in our pond.
For some reason, floating leaf skeletons are most visible on gloomy days.  Perhaps the filtered sunlight doesn't glare as much off the surface of the pond, and the light-colored skeletons stand out against the dark background of the pond depths.  Needless to say, leaf skeletons are strikingly beautiful, and they are lovely to find on a gray day.
Leaves ranging from living to dead floating in our pond.  The dead ones are starting to decompose.
The pond in our outdoor classroom has many tall trees towering over it.  As summer turns into fall, it is going to fill up with leaves, and we will hopefully have lots more floating skeletons.  Ponds provide the perfect habitat for production of leaf skeletons, because they allow for fast decomposition of soft plant tissues.  Aquatic conditions provide lots of snails, insects and microscopic organisms that attack a leaf as soon as it falls, since a newly fallen leaf has lots of nutrients to feed pond organisms.  The organisms eat the softest tissues and leave the leaf veins behind, allowing us to marvel at an important plant tissue.
Leaf skeleton from a hackberry leaf.
Leaf veins are a part of the transportation system within the plant.  The veins in leaves connect through the leaf stems into the main plant stems and all the way down to the roots.  Veins in plants are network of tubes for moving necessary substances from anywhere in the plant to any other part of the plant.  My mind can't help but compare leaf veins to our system of roads.  All our houses are connected to them, and we can use roads to get anywhere else.  I also think of our system of blood vessels - a similar network of tubes for moving necessary nutrients from one place to another within our bodies.
Leaf skeleton showing network of veins.
Plant vascular systems (vein systems) contain two types of tubes inside each vein.  One type of tube, called xylem (pronouned zy-lum), is rigid and only runs in one direction.  Xylem carries water and nutrients from the roots in the ground up to the leaves.  The second type of tube is called phloem (pronounced flow-um).  Phloem tubes are soft and flimsy, and they carry sugar, the product of photosynthesis, to wherever energy is needed in the plant.  Phloem tubes run in two directions.
Leaf veins in living leaves.
Leaf skeletons can be preserved by drying them pressed between newspaper or paper towels.  Their patterns can be revealed by covering them with paper and making a rubbing.  Different types of leaves have different patterns of leaf veins - highly branched, long parallel lines or radiating out from a center.  All three of these patterns of leaf veins can be found at our outdoor classroom.  Another fun trick for learning about the function of plant veins is to place a white carnation in water with food coloring.  After a few hours to a day, the xylem will carry the food coloring up to the petals.  The same thing would work in a leaf, but the green color of living leaves would make it difficult to see the food coloring.

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