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The Chicago Botanic Garden offers classes for every age, interest, and skill level with instruction by experts in their fields.

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

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

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

Seven years ago, we dreamed of turning a gravel parking lot at the Chicago Botanic Garden into something defining—a place where learners of all ages could explore and become inspired by the natural world.

My name is Eileen Prendergast, and I’m director of education at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time flipping through blueprints of that place, the Regenstein Learning Campus, the new home base for the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden. And I’ve been counting the days until we could open the doors to the public.

That day has finally arrived.

PHOTO: The Regenstein Learning Campus, as viewed by drone.

The Regenstein Learning Campus

I never could have imagined the rich details, the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the Learning Campus connects people to nature. Consider the heart of the campus, the Learning Center, which has 12 indoor and two outdoor classrooms (for cooking, yoga, and other classes, along with space for the new Nature Preschool). The Learning Center is also home to:

  • an art installation that reveals the transitioning shades of the Chicago Botanic Garden throughout the seasons—color rectangles show leaves, stems, berries, or flowers, photographed in extreme close-up,
  • benches made by a master wood-carver from the reclaimed wood of ash trees, and
  • an enclosed indoor beehive that allows honeybees to roam outside—and pollinate flowers in the new Nature Play Garden—and return through a long tube in the Learning Center’s roof.
PHOTO: A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

A young visitor examines the new indoor beehive in front of nature photographed in extreme close-up by artist Jo Hormuth.

Now the last—and most important—piece of our dream is about to come true. I can’t wait to see the Learning Campus come alive with people—splashing, rolling, climbing, and finding their own inspiration—at the free Opening Celebration. I look forward to meeting you.

PHOTO: Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Yoga is in session at the new Learning Campus.

Come to the free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply. Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Take 10 percent off classes when you sign up on-site on opening weekend (members get 30 percent off). Members are welcome to stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

A small pink bicycle—with training wheels and pink ribbons—was parked outside the new Nature Preschool at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It was just a sign of things to come at the preschool, which opens September 6 at the new Regenstein Learning Campus, home to the Garden’s education programs.

PHOTO: Bike parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus.

Parking right outside the new Regenstein Learning Campus

Learn more about the Nature Preschool at the Garden on our website.

Open houses for the 2017-18 school year will be held this fall. Meanwhile, we talked to some of this year’s students at the orientation for 4-year-olds about their future career plans and other matters.

PHOTO: Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.

Gemma plays in the outdoor mud kitchen.


Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like studying and putting all the things into baskets and seeing if the temperature is hot or cold and climbing trees and playing outside and looking at the stream and measuring and weighing things and to paint and do art.

Q. What’s so interesting about plants?
A. I like to see if a little walnut will grow into a walnut tree.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. An explorer.

PHOTO: Ethan works with homemade play dough.

Ethan works with homemade play dough.


Q. What are you looking forward to doing in school?
A. I like playing on the big hills and the rocks and in the garden and cutting the putty and working in the mud kitchen and ABCs.

Q. What is your favorite plant?
A. Cactus. [Why?] Because it has pointy things.

Q. So you already know things about nature.
A. I know a blue jay eats worms. I know that the cactus keeps water so he doesn’t need much.

PHOTO: Harrison explores tools in the science corner.

Harrison explores tools in the science corner.


Q. What do you think the Nature Preschool is going to be like?
A. Awesomeness.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. A scientist.

PHOTO: Erin works in the math station.

Erin works in the math station.


Q. Why do you want to go to the Nature Preschool?
A. I want to learn about plants. I like digging in the dirt. At home, I pull weeds. Mom does, too. I want to climb a tree.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. I like writing and animals.

PHOTO: Serena enjoys a snack.

Serena enjoys a snack.


Q. What do you want to do in preschool?
A. Go down the hills, play in the water and splash, read things.

Q. What’s your favorite subject?
A. Science.

Q. What do you want to be when you grow up?
A. When fishes and sharks get sick, I’ll fix them.

Q. What else will you do?
A. Just that.

PHOTO: Kids and families explore the Kleinman Family Cove.

Explore with us.

Come to the Regenstein Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 and 11, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; parking fees apply.

Enjoy live music and activities, take home a free plant, and more. Members can stop by the lounge for light refreshments and a commemorative gift.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and