Leaves are green. There are very few exceptions in healthy living plants, and most of the exceptions are partially green with red, yellow, orange, or white patterns; or they look white, but upon closer inspection they are actually whitish, bluish-green, and not pure white. The pigments that give all leaves their color are essential for the plant’s ability to harness energy from the sun and make sugars in the process we know as photosynthesis.

But every once in a while, a completely white seedling sprouts from a seed. This happened with some basil I grew a few years ago. 


PHOTO: this picture shows two seedlings, one has two green seed leaves and the other is white and only half as big.

The green and albino seedlings came up at the same time, but the albino seedling never grew true leaves, and eventually withered and died.

My albino basil survived only a few days. Without any chlorophyll—the green pigment necessary for photosynthesis—this seedling was doomed. That is the case with all albino plants. The gene mutation that gives rise to albino plants is fatal to the plant, because without the ability to make sugars, the plant runs out of energy to live.

So when I was perusing the online Burpee seed catalog and came across “variegated cat grass” I was curious. VERY curious, and perhaps you are, too.

PHOTO: a potted plant of white grass leaves.

How can this albino plant survive? (Photo permission from W. Atlee Burpee Company)

I had several questions: 

  • The term “variegated” implies that the leaves would be striped or multicolored, but in the picture it appears that there are all white leaves. What will this grass actually look like?
  • How long will it take to sprout?
  • How easy it to grow?
  • Is there enough green on those leaves for the grass to survive or will it die off like my basil?
  • If it does survive, how long can I keep it growing?

And most importantly:

  • Would this make an awesome science activity for students in the classroom and at home to investigate the importance of chlorophyll in plants?

There was only one way to find the answers. I ordered the seeds and grew some variegated cat grass in our nature lab at the new Learning Center. You can do this in your classroom to find answers to my questions and your own. 

Before I give you directions for growing cat grass, you may be wondering:

What IS cat grass?

The cat grass you may have seen sold in pet stores is usually a type of wheat, or Triticum. Our “variegated cat grass” is a type of barley (Hordeum vulgare variegata). Both are cereal grains that have been cultivated as food for hundreds of years. Both are sold commercially as cat grass because some cats like to chew on the leaves. Not being a cat owner, I don’t know if cats actually like this stuff, but apparently it sells.

Variegated barley was the result of science experiments on genetic mutations in barley seeds in the 1920s. The hybrid barley seeds have been packaged and sold by different seed companies because…well, they’re attractive and intriguing—they caught my attention.

How to plant cat grass, barley, wheat, or any grass seeds

You need:

  • A container that will hold soil at a depth of at least 2 inches; drainage holes are best, but not necessary
  • Variegated cat grass seeds (sold as “cat grass, variegated” and available at Burpee and other seed suppliers)
  • Potting soil
  • Water
  • A warm, sunny location for your plants


PHOTO: Twelve plants have sprouted, one green, three green and white striped, and the rest all white.

In less than a week, a few more than half of the twenty variegated cat grass seeds planted in this 4-inch pot grew to 4 – 6 inches tall. The taller plants are ready for a trim.

Fill the container with moist potting soil. Spread seeds on the surface of the soil. Cover seeds with a thin layer of moist soil and tamp the soil down so that most of the seeds are covered. It’s all right if you can see some of the seeds through the thin layer of soil. Place in a warm, bright location. The seeds will sprout in a few days, but may take a week depending on the room temperature.

If students plant their own individual pots, have them place 20 – 30 seeds in each 3-inch container. The seeds I bought came 300 to a pack, so that means you need at least two (maybe three) packs to have enough for everyone in the class.

PHOTO: most of the grass is all white, but there are nine or ten all or partially green leaves.

Half of the 100 seeds planted in this 8-inch pot have sprouted, and more should be coming up soon.

You can also use the whole pack in a 8- to 10-inch container, or even spread more seeds in a foil baking pan filled with soil to grow a carpet of grass. The more densely you plant the seeds, the closer the plants will grow together and it will look and feel more like a healthy lawn. A sparser planting makes it easier to observe individual plants. It’s up to you how you want to do it, really.

Keep the grass in a warm, sunny location. Water when dry, but do not allow it to dry out. When the grass leaves are more than 3 inches tall, use a sharp pair of scissors to trim them to a uniform height just as you would mow a lawn. This will prevent the grass from going to seed and keep it alive longer. You can plant new seeds in the same planter to revitalize in two to three weeks when it starts looking a little tired.

Now the REAL science part: 

Whether you make a single classroom planter or have each student plant her own pot, observe your variegated cat grass for the next four to six weeks, or even longer. Keep it watered and trimmed. Measure its growth. Take photos or sketch it to record how it grows and changes. Ask your own questions and try to find answers, and ultimately reach a conclusion about what happens to white plants. If you and your class are really interested, plant some more cat grass and change the procedure to test your own ideas. It’s that easy to do plant science in your classroom.

Want more albino plant science? Read on.

More activities for inquiring minds

You can experiment with other genetically modified albino seeds available through science supply companies.

PHOTO: A packet of genetically modified corn seeds and instruction booklet

Seed kits enable you to investigate different genetic traits, including the albino mutation.

Carolina Biological Supply Company sells hybrid corn that will grow white leaves and stems. I have planted these seeds and they work pretty well, but require a bright window or light and a warm environment to sprout successfully. A classroom kit contains soil, planting trays, and 500 seeds for a classroom investigation, and costs about $100. You can order just the seeds in packs of 100 genetic corn seeds that are all albino (90 percent of the seedlings will grow to be albino) for $18.50, or a green/albino mix—which means about 75 percent of seedlings will be green and 25 percent white, for $10.50. The latter enables you to compare the mutation to the normal strain. 

PHOTO: Ten white corn seedlings are a few inches tall.

Five days after planting, albino corn seedlings are beautiful, but ill-fated.

Nasco sells seeds and kits to investigate albino plants. Their “Observing the Growth of Mutant Corn Seeds” kit serves up to 40 students and costs $62.50. Nasco also has albino tobacco seeds with 3:1 green to white ratio, 1,200 seeds for $12.05. Tobacco seeds are smaller, and therefore more difficult for little fingers to handle than corn or barley. I have never tried growing them, but that might be my next science project this fall.

PHOTO: eight inch glass planter with green grass and label that says: Cat Grass (Barley).

After a two months, my densely planted variegated cat grass is thriving at the nature lab, even though it no longer resembles the catalog photo.

The answer to my question? Yes! This is an awesome science activity for students because it’s easy and demonstrates something really important—in fact, something essential to our existence!

You don’t need to purchase the fancy kits to investigate why plants are green. You can get a lot of good science learning out of a pack of variegated cat grass. All you really need to do is look around you and notice the colors in nature. Do you see white leaves anywhere? If you do, then there is probably a science investigation waiting for you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Autumn Scents

Barbara Brotman —  October 15, 2016 — Leave a comment

“What’s that smell?”

It’s what I’ve been asking myself in recent weeks. Not in a bad way; it’s an entrancing scent that’s been wafting through the air, at the Garden and in gardens I walk by in my neighborhood—but one I couldn’t quite place. I’ve been walking around, nose in the air, happy but perplexed.

Every spring we marvel at the sweet smells in the air. But perfumed breezes in autumn? And what an unusual perfume. Cilantro? With a hint of honey? What could it be?

“You’re smelling something that’s reminiscent of coriander, maybe cilantro?” said Jacob Burns, the Garden’s curator of herbaceous perennial plants.  “You’re probably smelling Sporobolus heterolepis. Prairie dropseed.”

Welcome to a signature scent of late summer and early fall: the scent of prairie dropseed, a native grass.

PHOTO: A single panicle of prairie dropseed.

A single panicle of prairie dropseed

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Never mind the sweet scents of spring; this season’s plant aroma is in a class of its own. And it’s almost indescribable. I thought of cilantro partly because of the scent, but also because I couldn’t quite place it or compare it to anything else—like cilantro.

“Some people think it smells like buttered popcorn,” said Garden horticulturist Liz Rex, who cares for the Native Plant Garden.

The scent comes from the flowers, feathery panicles that bloom in late summer. I’ve smelled it walking by gardens where people have planted a few native prairie species.

Rex has been surrounded by it in places where it is planted en masse.

“The first year I was in the Native Plant Garden, it was almost overwhelming,” she said. “But now I really enjoy it and look forward to it.”

You can smell it in various spots in the Garden, Rex said—the Native Plant Garden, the restored prairie, the Kleinman Family Cove near the new Regenstein Learning Campus, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden; and the rainwater glen outside the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center.

You can smell it in remnant prairies, said Joan O’Shaughnessy, prairie and river ecologist at the Garden—and if you do, that means the prairie is of high quality.

But you can also smell it in ordinary gardens. Native species are increasingly popular in front and back yards, and prairie dropseed (it gets its common name because of the way its mature seeds drop to the ground in autumn) is a Chicago-area superstar.

“It’s a wonderful garden plant because its growth form is low, which people like; it has this fountain-like look to the vegetation; and you can keep it over winter for appeal,” O’Shaughnessy said.

It can grow in both wettish and dry soil. Like many native plants of this region, it can tolerate drought. It can grow in that bane of the Chicago gardener’s existence, heavy clay soil. “It’s just a great plant,” she said.

It isn’t the only source of fall fragrance in the Garden. There is also the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).

PHOTO: In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

In early fall, the gold outline of katsura tree leaves is particularly visible as they begin to change color.

PHOTO: The late fall foliage of the katsura tree.

The late fall foliage of the katsura tree
Photo by Amy Campion

“The leaves turn a really pretty fall yellow, and once they drop, they release a sugary aroma that smells like cotton candy,” Burns said. “Some liken it to caramel or even brown sugar.”

You can find a katsura on Evening Island by the trellis bridge, he said, and also in the Krasberg Rose Garden.

So while fall’s colors are rightfully beloved, it turns out that the season appeals to another sense, too. Go ahead and enjoy looking at the annual show of autumn colors—but don’t forget the autumn scents.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Botanic gardens are looking at the ways that zoos are trying to save threatened and exceptional species—including whooping cranes, black-footed ferrets, and giants pandas—to see if their approach could be adapted and used to help save rare plant species.  

Over the past year, the Chicago Botanic Garden has been working with the Brookfield Zoo, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and other institutions to modify management tools developed for zoo living collections for botanic garden use.

Scientists and curators at botanic gardens and zoos both manage populations—of plants and animals, respectively—for conservation purposes. This type of conservation, outside the habitat of the plant or animal, is called “ex situ” (off site) conservation. There is a lot of similarity between the best practices for living collection management at zoos and botanic gardens, but to date, we have not often worked together to adapt tools developed for animals to plants and vice-versa.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that plant conservation relies heavily on seed banking. Storing seeds is an effective conservation method for most plant species, and avoids many of the problems associated with growing plants in the garden. (Living plants may be killed or injured by diseases and pests, may hybridize with other plants in the garden, and over several generations, may change genetically in ways that make them less suited for reintroduction.) However, many plant species are not well-suited for seed banking, either because their seeds are recalcitrant—they cannot be dried and frozen—or because some plants rarely produce seeds. Living collections offer an alternative conservation method for these “exceptional” species.

PHOTO: Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

Conservation scientist Dr. Andrea Kramer hand-pollinates a Brighamia insignis specimen.

In this recent paper in the American Journal of Botany, we describe an approach that botanic gardens could adopt to improve their management of rare plant species—based on the “studbook” approach zoos use for animals. We hope to test this approach in two rare plants next year: Quercus oglethorpensis (Ogelthorpe oak—found only in the southeastern United States), and Brighamia insignis (Ālula—found only on Kauai in Hawaii).

PHOTO: Quercus oglethorpensis.

Quercus oglethorpensis
Photo ©2015, Virginia Tech Dept. of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation

PHOTO: Brighamia insignis.

Brighamia insignis

It is clear that zoos and botanic gardens have much to learn from each other, and we hope to work more with our zoo counterparts in the future.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Under a grey fall sky, the English Walled Garden was blooming with color, activity, and life. Rain-glazed flowers drew tiny hummingbirds, and fountains sang. It was a special day. John Brookes, the English landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens was there for a visit, something that has happened only once every few years since the beloved site was dedicated in the summer of 1991.

PHOTO: Clematis bloom through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Clematis blooms through a wall in May in the English Walled Garden.

Although the garden has grown and changed since that time, it has remained true to the original concept Brookes created. “There’s an intimacy about it that I think people like,” said Brookes, who strolled the space with a small team of Garden staff members. “I don’t think there’s another area that has this range of plant material in it,” he added.

Before entering the garden, Brookes paused to soak in the entrance plantings along the west wall, evaluating the shape, color, and size of each shrub, flower, and vine. The vibrant section had been replanted since his last visit, but he nodded as if in agreement as he swept his eyes over the arrangement.

He was next drawn to the perimeter of the garden that overlooks the Great Basin. The border of the space and the height and shape of trees and shrubs were his first priorities there and throughout his tour. Neatness was fundamental in his view, as he looked for carefully arranged edging such as boxwood bushes. However, in places such as the daisy garden, he encouraged the horticulturists to allow for wild messiness, and for tall, abundant blooms that create a relaxed feeling.

As he walked from one garden room to the next, he admired splashes of color and white flowers that brought a light touch to the many deep green plantings and shady areas. He looked over the shoulders of a cluster of art students who were painting their own vision of the space, and nodded with approval.

PHOTO: Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom create dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

Sunlight shining through apples in spring bloom creates dappled shade over foxglove in the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: The yellow blooms of Magnolia 'Elizabeth' are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

The yellow blooms of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ are a beacon of spring in the English Walled Garden each year.

PHOTO: Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

Blooming through late fall, the morning glory vines captivate visitors to the English Walled Garden.

PHOTO: Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Preparing to bloom, morning glory vine creeps up the wisteria arbors of the English Walled Garden in midsummer.

Again and again, he paused, considered, discussed, and nodded, occasionally spotting a new addition to the garden, or the absence of a plant that had once lived there. Always, he was looking for brightness in the form of blue, yellow, and white flowers, silvery accents, and varied vines against red brick walls. Sitting beside a trickling fountain, he noted the importance of the many water features. “It brings it alive,” he said. Water “brings light down into the garden because you get a reflection. It’s the sound, really,” he added.

PHOTO: John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

John Brookes, the landscape architect who designed the suite of gardens known as the English Walled Garden.

Returning to the perimeter of the garden, he stopped to take in the view from beneath an English oak that was planted by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret in 1986, when ground was broken for the garden.

Brookes’ design was inspired by several gardens in England, including the gardens of Russell Page and the Great Dixter gardens.

Returning to the tour, Brookes and the team of Garden staff anticipated the arrival of mums and asters in the coming days. Like a proud parent, Brookes said that the garden has “just grown and matured,” since it was first planted. “It feels like a real garden more than a show garden.”

A brightly colored butterfly swept by as if to say “thank you,” while a photographer snapped a photo of a hummingbird and several women in wide-brimmed hats gathered on benches to chat. A vision come to life.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Planting well-being: near and far

How the Horticultural Therapy Department makes an impact on a communities health, education and wellbeing.

Clare Johnson —  October 10, 2016 — 2 Comments

This year, the Horticultural Therapy Services department consulted with a wide range of organizations to bring the healing power of nature to communities across the globe—from Illinois to the Philippines. 

This past spring, the Horticultural Therapy department was contacted by Park School—a self-contained public therapeutic day program in Evanston, Illinois—to develop a plant-based therapy program alongside its staff and students. This program was generously funded by Foundation 65, the educational foundation for Evanston-Skokie School District 65. 

Throughout the spring and early summer, we planted and tended an accessible, outdoor container garden as part of the students’ therapeutic curriculum.


Planting sensory containers with a student at Park School

Park’s devotion to its students, community, and environmental education landed the school a grant from the GRO1000 grassroots grant project. This grant enabled Park to contract with the Chicago Botanic Garden to design a permanent sensory garden for the school. 

As the design consultant, I led the garden design steering committee—comprised of Park staff; Mary Brown, Ph.D., of District 65; and Park’s PTA—through the design process, resulting in an accessible and engaging sensory garden design set to be installed on October 14 and 15. 

The Park School Sensory Garden boasts elements such as an outdoor classroom with overhead pergola, accessible garden shed and raised containers, hanging sensory planters, and a memorial garden. Park School will be hosting a volunteer day on Saturday, October 15, for local community members interested in getting involved in this fantastic project. The volunteer day will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a garden dedication at 2 p.m. 

C:UsersAmy OlsenDownloadsPark School update 729 11x17 Landsc

Rendering of the Park School Sensory Garden (Clare Johnson)

The restorative power of nature knows no bounds, and we’re fortunate to be able to provide consulting services to organizations near and far. When Rachel Jones, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Philippines, contacted us in early 2016 asking for design guidance, we immediately said “yes.”

Rachel works at a nonprofit organization called My Refuge House. It’s a shelter for girls who have been rescued from commercial sexual exploitation and abuse. Two years ago the shelter switched from a highly clinical track of therapy to one that is more culturally relevant and uses alternative approaches. As a professional who had previously worked with horticultural therapy, Rachel created a project and received a grant to create a healing garden on the property for group therapy and individual meditation.


Collecting cuttings from community members for the healing garden

Rachel and I discussed some of the fundamental principles of therapeutic garden design, including but not limited to private and public gathering spaces, lush plantings, smooth paving, shade structure/trees, safe perimeter, moveable seating, and so on.

Rachel engaged the local community while constructing the garden. She shared a story about how she collected some of the plant material: “Today we went on a hike up the mountain, where the shelter is located, to ask people for cuttings from their plants. We met great people and they were all very generous in providing plants for our garden.” When planning a garden, involving your community is a great way to increase the ownership of a space, and the devotion to the mission.

It was wonderful to read the updates from Rachel as they came to the end of the installation. 

My Refuge House

The Healing Garden at My Refuge House in the Philippines

When the garden was completed, they hosted a dedication ceremony memorializing the hard work that had gone into the creation of the healing garden. It was an honor to be a resource for this incredible project, and we hope to have a powerful effect on many other communities, moving forward. 

The healing power of nature, much like these projects, has no limits. Something as small as a shady nook with a gliding swing can make a world of difference for someone in need.  

Find more information about the project at My Refuge House by visiting the Peace Corp volunteer’s blog

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org