Archives For Kathy J.

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

Color the leaves to understand the shades of fall

All it takes is a little Chemistry 101

Kathy J. —  October 5, 2016 — Leave a comment

During the summer, tree leaves produce all the pigments we see in fall, but they make so much chlorophyll that the green masks the underlying reds, oranges, and yellows.

In fall, days get shorter and cooler, and trees stop producing chlorophyll. As a result, the green color fades, revealing the vibrant colors we love. Eventually, these colors also fade, and the leaves turn brown, wither, and drop. Then the trees become dormant for winter.

Download a coloring activity.

Fall Color at the Garden

There are four pigments responsible for leaf colors:

  • Chlorophyll (pronounced KLOR-a-fill) – green
  • Xanthophyll (pronounced ZAN-tho-fill) – yellow
  • Carotene (pronounced CARE-a-teen) – gold, orange  
  • Anthocyanin (pronounced an-tho-SIGH-a-nin) – red, violet, can also be bluish

Leaves are brown when there are no more photo-sensitive pigments; only the tannins are left.

Color these leaves according to the pigments they produce:

honeylocust leaf
Honey locust

Leaves turn color early in the season; the lighter carotenes glow warmly against the blue sky and green grass.


sugar maple leaf
Sugar maple

The fading chlorophyll, combined with xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin, produce the spectacular show we anticipate every year. Leaves change slowly and over time may be any combination of the four pigments, ending in a brilliant flame of anthocyanin.


japanese maple leaf
Japanese maple

The darker anthocyanin hues turn these feathery leaves the color of shadows—fitting for the spooky month of Halloween.


sweetgum leaf

Like the maple, this tree puts on an awe-inspiring display of xanthophyll, carotene, and anthocyanin all together.


ginkgo leaf

Light filtering through the xanthophyll and lighter carotene of these leaves creates an ethereal glow. The ginkgo drops all of its leaves in a day or two.


sumac leaf

The anthocyanin in these leaves makes them the color and shape of flames, and appears as fire against the duller colors of the surrounding landscape.


buckeye leaf

Carotenes recede quickly around the edges of the leaves as they prepare to parachute to the ground.


tulip tree leaf illustration
Tulip tree

A pale hint of chlorophyll mixes with xanthophyll and a touch of carotene as this tree shuts down for winter.


pin oak leaf illustration
Pin oak

This stately tree holds its anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall. The color eventually fades, but the tree holds its pigment-less leaves through the winter.

Download a coloring activity. 

Facts about fall leaf colors:

  • Trees use the sugars they produce through photosynthesis to make all of the pigments we see.
  • The best fall color display comes in years when there has been a warm, wet spring; a summer without drought or excessive heat; and a fall with warm, sunny days and cool nights.
  • Chlorophyll, carotene, xanthophyll, and anthocyanin are also responsible for the coloring of all fruits and vegetables, including corn, pumpkins, beans, peppers, tomatoes, and berries.
  • Peak fall color comes earlier in northern latitudes than southern latitudes, so if you miss the best of the sugar maples in Chicago, take a trip south to get your color fix.
  • You can preserve a leaf by ironing it between sheets of wax paper.

Fall color(ing) activity correct colors:

Fall Color(ing) Activity Answers

Illustrations by Maria Ciacco
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

For one December session of our Plant Explorers after school program at Chicago International Charter School—Irving Park, the students made living ornaments for the holidays.

This tiny terrarium project can have a calming influence on a potentially hectic holiday, because green and growing plants make us feel more relaxed. It requires you to find some live moss, but it makes an extra special decoration for kids—and adults—who love plants. 

PHOTO: The finished moss terrarium ornament.

The finished moss terrarium ornament

PHOTO: Moss globe ornament supplies.

A fillable plastic globe ornament, small amount of potting soil, live moss, ribbon, and little wooden reindeer are what we used to create our ornaments. (Charcoal is not shown.)

To make your own “moss-some” terrarium ornament you will need:

  • 3-inch or larger plastic sphere ornament that splits into two halves (available at craft stores)
  • Live moss that you find growing in a shady place in your yard (or you can buy it from a garden store that sells terrarium supplies)
  • Activated charcoal (sold in garden and aquarium stores)
  • Soil
  • About 12 inches of decorative ribbon
  • Any miniature item you want to add for whimsy (optional)

Separate the halves of the DIY ornament. If your ornament is like mine, it has little “loops” for attaching a hook at the top. Start by tying a 12-inch piece of ribbon to each half of the ornament through the loops.

In one half of the ornament, add about a teaspoon of activated charcoal. Fill the rest of that ornament half with very wet soil to about a half inch below the top.

PHOTO: Tying the ribbon a the globe ornament.

Use whatever decorative ribbon you like, but make sure it’s narrow enough to fit through the ornament loops and that it’s knotted securely.

PHOTO: The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

The moss ornament is almost complete with charcoal, soil, moss, and reindeer!

Place the moss on top and gently press it into the soil. If you like, add a miniature object to add a little whimsy. Craft stores have lots of miniature objects that would look good in this ornament. We chose these woodcut reindeer to look like the animals were walking through a forest. And there were enough in the pack for all 15 students to get one. Use whatever you like!

If you have a spray bottle with water handy, it helps to give the moss leaves a gentle misting before closing the ornament.

PHOTO: Moss globe terrarium ornament.

Seal the moss in a closed terrarium ornament. The moss can live inside this globe indefinitely.

Place the other half of the ornament on top, but instead of lining up the two loops, put them at opposite ends so that you can hang the ornament ball sideways and not disturb the arrangement. You can tape the two halves together with clear tape if you are concerned about them coming apart. I suggest only taping the sides near the loops rather than wrapping it all the way around so the tape is less obvious and you can open the ornament later if you want to.

The moss just needs light from your home to survive through the holidays. Moisture will evaporate from the soil and will collect on the insides of the ornament. It will roll back down to keep the moss watered indefinitely.

Now you’re wondering if (and how) the moss will survive. I have your answers: read on.

Some Facts About Moss

Mosses are simple plants that scientists classify as bryophytes.

What you see as a clump of velvety green carpet is actually hundreds of tiny individual moss plants clumped together. Botanists refer to these as gametophytes.

PHOTO: A close up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

A close-up of moss seen from above shows the tops of hundreds of individual plants clumped together.

PHOTO: Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Seen from the side, the moss looks like a tiny, dense forest.

Mosses do not have true roots. They have rhizomes that anchor the plant to the soil and send up buds for new individual moss plants, but the rhizomes do not transport water like true roots. Mosses absorb water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide through their leaves. 

The rhizomes are fine and grow at the surface of wherever they are planted, so they do not require deep soil. As a result, moss can grow in any porous surface, like tree bark or a stone (but maybe not on a rolling stone!). So moss can thrive in the small amount of soil in your ornament. The moisture sealed inside the globe will keep the air humid and supply the leaves with water.

Mosses also do not flower or make seeds. They produce tiny spores that are difficult to see without magnification. The spores are carried by wind until they fall, and there they wait for the right conditions to grow into new moss plants.

PHOTO: A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

A single moss gametophyte grows from a root-like rhizome.

PHOTO: Moss reproductive structures.

The tips of the taller slender structures are sporophytes that will release spores and continue the life cycle of the moss.

If your moss dries up or becomes dormant, do not despair! You can bring it back to life by soaking the dry clump in water and keeping it moist. This will reinvigorate the dormant moss and activate spores that are lying hidden in the dry moss, enabling them to grow into new moss.

PHOTO: Moss terrarium ornament with deer.Find more fun projects for the holidays! Make Spicy Greeting Cards and Rock Candy, or a Grapefruit Bird Feeder. ‘Tis the season for a little Christmas tree taxonomy!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Handmade greeting cards make people feel loved. Here is a fun and festive way to show friends and relatives that you care about them. It’s a great project for kids who need something to do during Thanksgiving break. (It’s also a way to use up some of those 20-year-old spices that are languishing in your kitchen cabinet!)

PHOTO: Spice holiday cards.

Finished spicy holiday cards smell absolutely fantastic.


  • White glue in a squeeze bottle
  • Construction paper 
  • Dried herbs and spices, whole or ground 
  • Salt and water in a small dish, with a paint brush
  • Markers, crayons, or colored pencils

Work over a large paper towel or mat, because this project is messy!

Fold a piece of stiff paper (construction paper or card stock) in half. Draw a design with glue on the front of the card. Try to use glue sparingly, because the paper will warp if the glue is too thick or wet. Sprinkle the herbs or spices of your choice on the wet glue.

You can apply the spices by gently tapping them out of the jar onto the page, or take small pinches and apply them where you want them to go. If you want more control, fold a small piece of paper in half, put some spices in the crease, and gently tap the paper to slide the spices down the crease to apply them to your picture. 

It helps if you make the glue design for one spice at a time, and let each spice dry before putting a new one on. When each spice has dried, shake the card to remove excess, and apply glue for the next spice. This reduces blending.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: snowman.

Cream of tartar dries white to make this snowman. Other dried spices were used for hat and arms, and whole cloves make the face and buttons.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: wreath.

One of my daughters combined different herbs to make this wreath, and decorated it with dots of cinnamon, whole cloves, and a bay leaf and paprika bow.

Dried herbs are all slightly different shades of green. Tarragon leaves are a lighter green, and a little brighter than oregano. For yellow, try ground turmeric or curry. Paprika, cinnamon, chili powder, and crushed red pepper flakes deliver warm reds. Pink and green peppercorns make nice accents. Cream of tartar and alum powder dry white, but require special handling or they will flake off. Everything sticks better if you gently press the herbs into the glue.

You can also glue whole spices such as bay leaves, cloves, fennel seed, or pieces of cinnamon bark to the card. Keep in mind that whole spices will make the card bulkier and may make it difficult to fit the card into the envelope. 

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: birds.

Turmeric, paprika, and bay leaves were used to create this scene of birds perched on a branch.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: snowflakes.

It’s too bad your screen is not “scratch and sniff,” because this card smells of cinnamon, cardamom, paprika, oregano, and tarragon.

Want to add some sparkle? Glue salt crystals in some areas or paint salt water on the paper with a fine paintbrush or cotton swab. Like glue, you’ll want to use a light touch so the paper does not become too wet and wrinkled.

My daughters are teenagers, so they made an effort to make a picture of something recognizable. If you have younger children, they will probably make a picture that resembles abstract art. It doesn’t matter, because it will still smell wonderful! What’s important is that they make it themselves and have fun doing it.

PHOTO: Spice holiday card: Christmas tree.

My daughter used tarragon for the tree, crushed red pepper for the trunk and garland, whole cloves for ornaments, and turmeric to make the star.

After the glue is completely dry, gently shake the card over a bowl one final time to remove the loose spices. When you are finished working on this project, you can place all of the leftover spices from your work area into a bowl and place them in a room to make the air fragrant. 

One final step: don’t forget to write your message on the inside! You might say something clever like, “Seasoning’s Greetings,” “Merry Christmas Thyme,” “Have a Scent-sational Hanukkah,” or “Wishing You a Spicy New Year.” Don’t forget to sign your name!

A card like this does not fit into an envelope easily and is best hand-delivered. If you must mail it, cover the front with a piece of paper to protect it. Carefully pack the card with a stiff piece of cardboard in a padded envelope to reduce bending and crushing while it’s in transit. If you are delivering a small bundle to the post office, ask them to hand-cancel your cards (they’ll appreciate the tip).

I hope your special creations brighten someone’s day and fill them with memories of good times with family and friends!

Want more fun, craft projects for kids over the holidays? Check out our blogs on making Fruit and Veggie Prints, Wearable Indian Corn necklaces, and Bottle Cap Bouquets.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

I am often asked, “What can kids do to help the Earth?”

There is a standard litany of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” suggestions that almost everyone can tell you: recycle your garbage, turn the lights off when you leave a room, turn the water off while brushing your teeth, and so forth. 

EarthWe’ve been saying these same things for decades. And while they’re great ideas, they’re things we should all be doing. It’s time to give kids a chance to do something bigger. During Climate Week this year, I am offering a different suggestion: Watch dandelions grow and participate in Project BudBurst.

PHOTO: Dandelions.

These happy dandelions could contribute valuable information to the science of climate change.

Project BudBurst is a citizen science program in which ordinary people (including kids 10 years old and up) contribute information about plant bloom times to a national database online. The extensive list of plants that kids can watch includes the common dandelion, which any 10-year-old can find and watch over time.

Why is this an important action project?

Scientists are monitoring plants as a way to detect and measure changes in the climate. Recording bloom times of dandelions and other plants over time across the country enables them to compare how plants are growing in different places at different times and in different years. These scientists can’t be everywhere watching every plant all the time, so your observations may be critical in helping them understand the effects of climate change on plants.

What to Do:

1. Open the Project Budburst website at and register as a member. It’s free and easy. Click around the website and read the information that interests you.

2. Go to the “Observing Plants” tab and print a Wildflower Regular Report form. Use this form to gather and record information about your dandelion. 

3. Find a dandelion in your neighborhood, preferably one growing in a protected area, not likely to be mowed down or treated with weed killers, because you will want to watch this plant all year. It’s also best if you can learn to recognize it without any flowers, and that you start with a plant that has not bloomed yet.

4. Fill in the Wildflower Regular Report with information about the dandelion and its habitat.

Common Plant Name: Common dandelion

Scientific Name: Taraxacum officinale

Site Name: Give the area a name like “Green Family Backyard” or “Smart Elementary School Playground”

Latitude and Longitude: Use a GPS device to find the exact location of your dandelion. (Smartphones have free apps that can do this. Ask an adult for help if you need it.) Record the letters, numbers, and symbols exactly as shown on the GPS device. This is important because it will enable the website database to put your plant on a national map.

Answer the questions about the area around your plant. If you don’t understand a question, ask an adult to help you.

PHOTO: This is a printout from the Project BudBurst Website, that asks about the location of the plant and provides places to record bloom times, as well as other comments.

The BudBurst Wildflower Regular Report is easy to use and will guide you through the process.

girl with data sheet

After you find a dandelion you want to watch, record information about the location of the plant.

5. Now you’re ready to watch your dandelion. Visit it every day that you can. On the right side of the form, record information as you observe it.

budburst notebook

  • In the “First Flower” box, write the date you see the very first, fully open yellow flower on your dandelion.
  • As the plant grows more flowers, record the date when it has three or more fully open flowers.
  • Where it says “First Ripe Fruit,” it means the first time a fluffy, white ball of seeds is open. Resist the temptation to pick it and blow it. Remember, you are doing science for the planet now!
  • For “Full Fruiting” record the date when there are three seedheads on this plant. It’s all right if the seeds have blown away. It may have new flowers at the same time.
  • In the space at the bottom, you can write comments about things you notice. For example, you may see an insect on the flower, or notice how many days the puffball of seeds lasts. This is optional.
  • Keep watching, and record the date that the plant looks like it is all finished for the year—no more flowers or puffballs, and the leaves look dead.
  • When your plant has completed its life cycle, or it is covered in snow, log onto the BudBurst website and follow directions to add your information to the database.

Other Plants to Watch

You don’t have to watch dandelions. You can watch any of the other plants on the list, such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus) or Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica). You can also watch a tree or grass—but you will need to use a different form to record the information. Apple (Malus pumila), red maple (Acer rubrum), and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) trees are easy to identify and interesting to watch. If you are an over-achiever, you can observe the butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) bloom times and do citizen science research for monarchs at the same time! (The USDA Forest Service website provides information about that; click here for more information.) 

PHOTO: Two girls are looking closely at a milkweed plant that has about eight green seed pods.

These students are observing a milkweed that is in the “First Ripe Fruit” stage.

For the past two springs, educators at the Chicago Botanic Garden have taught the fifth graders at Highcrest Middle School in nearby Wilmette how to do Project BudBurst in their school’s Prairie Garden. The students are now watching spiderwort, red columbine, yellow coneflower, and other native plants grow at their school. Some of these prairie plants may be more difficult to identify, but they provide even more valuable information about climate.

So while you are spending less time in the shower and you’re riding your bike instead of asking mom for a ride to your friend’s house, go watch some plants and help save the planet even more!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and