Archives For Youth Education

The Garden is a great place for people of all ages to learn to about plants and the natural world. These posts relate to programs offered for children and youth, but also offer educational information for the adults in their lives as well.

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

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

Keep summer fun going with outdoor activities that encourage creativity and independent thinking.

School is in session, but that doesn’t mean outdoor summer fun has to stop. Sure, going back to school might mean the long summer days of riding bikes and playing hide-and-seek outside will be replaced with classrooms and school bells, but kids can still find time to play in nature when they aren’t in school. And the good news is that outdoor play time has many benefits; a growing body of research shows that nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps people focus, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships.

PHOTO: Three young boys peek into a bucket full of lake water looking for life.

Sharing discoveries—like water creatures from Garden lakes—is a great way to cement knowledge.

Nature play abounds at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and can be found in many of our education programs, including family drop-in activities, Camp CBG, and the new nature preschool. Ann Halley, coordinator of early childhood programs, outlined a few nature play activities kids and families do at the Garden that can also be done at home. Choose an activity—or two—to keep children playing in nature throughout the school year:

PHOTO: British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

British sculptor, photographer, and environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy inspired this nature art at Camp CBG.

Create land art. Use twigs, rocks, and leaves to create artistic sculptures and let creativity be the guide. Build a stone tower topped with a flower, or let a design naturally reveal itself. Discover the beauty of natural materials and make whatever feels right. There are no limits on what can be created using material found in the backyard and a bit of imagination.

PHOTO: A young boy mixes mud in kitchen baking pans.

Half the joy of painting with mud: mixing your colors.

Paint with mud. Why use regular paint when mud is so much more fun? Swap out watercolors for mud and ditch brushes for hands to create all-natural art. Take sustainability up a notch by using an outside surface—the sidewalk, a driveway, or back patio—instead of paper as your canvas. Wash creations away when you’re through.

Dissect flowers. Pick a few wildflowers and take them apart. Examine each petal and stamen. Compare different flowers and notice the shapes and colors of each. For older children who are interested in art, use the dissected flower pieces to make geometric patterns. Budding scientists can compare different kinds of flowers to learn more about what attracts certain pollinators.

PHOTO: A small girl picks apart the seed pods of Lunaria, or money plant.

Peeling apart leaves, seeds, and flowers reveals all kinds of interesting information about the natural world.

Go on an adventure hike. It seems obvious to suggest a hike when talking about activities that can be done outdoors. But an adventure hike makes the walk more fun. Give the hike a theme and try to hunt for on-topic items. The theme can be a color (things that are blue), a shape (look for circles), or whatever else you think might be fun. Turning the hike into an adventure means children will be more aware of what’s all around them and will stop—maybe even literally—to smell the flowers.

Study the clouds. Look up. A cloudy day provides an opportunity to find inspiration in the sky. Younger children can look for different shapes. Older kids can discuss the different types of clouds and identify those currently over their heads. The best part about this activity? No tools required.

Can’t get enough nature play? Check out the new Regenstein Learning Campus and sample some of the Garden’s educational offerings at the Opening Weekend celebration on Saturday and Sunday, September 10 and 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can get artistic with a photography or mosaics class demonstration, stretch your muscles with yoga or tai chi, or have some fun running on rolling hills or splashing in the water of the Nature Play Garden.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and