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A blog for visitors to the Garden.
Updated: 5 hours 15 min ago

Science Activity: Albino Plants

Mon, 10/17/2016 - 11:10am

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. 


 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.

 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


 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.

 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.

 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. 

 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.

 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

Wed, 10/05/2016 - 12:55pm

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.

Parents and teachers: download a coloring sheet for your kids here!

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 sheet for your kids here!

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

Opening the Doors to a Dream at Learning Campus

Thu, 09/08/2016 - 9:00am

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.

 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.
 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.

 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

Nature Preschool: Awesomeness and ABCs

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 8:50am

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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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

Nature Play Never Stops

Thu, 09/01/2016 - 1:30pm

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.

 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:

 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.

 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.

 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

Deeply Rooted at the Regenstein Learning Campus

Fri, 08/19/2016 - 12:00pm

This September, find even more ways to learn, play, and get inspired. Our new Nature Play Garden’s plants and natural features encourage discovery, sensory interaction, and imaginative play.

But the best learning opportunities you’ll find on the Regenstein Learning Campus come from horticulturists and educators with lives deeply rooted in nature. Here are a few of their personal stories.

Explore the Nature Play Garden at the Learning Campus’s free Opening Celebration, September 10 & 11, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (parking fees apply). See the complete schedule for our Opening Celebration events on our website.

Kris Jarantoski

 Kris Jarantoski, age 3.

Kris at age 3.

 Kris Jarantoski, Executive Vice President and Director, Chicago Botanic Garden.

Kris Jarantoski, executive vice president and director, Chicago Botanic Garden

I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We lived across the street from a woods and river, and I played there all the time. With friends, we built forts and swung around on grapevines. I noticed that the hawthorn flower had a funky smell, and to this day, whenever I smell hawthorn flowers, I’m transported back to those woods.

My parents took me to visit Mitchell Park Conservatory and Boerner Botanical Gardens. Boerner Botanical Gardens especially made a huge impression on me. It had gardens on a scale that I did not have at home and a diversity of plants from around the world that could never fit into my yard. It expanded my horticultural horizons immensely and was a fantasy world to me.

I started out in college majoring in music, playing the organ. In my sophomore year I took a botany class and was fascinated. I switched my major to horticulture and loved designing and planning gardens. Once I decided to pursue a career in horticulture, I knew it had to be working in a botanic garden.

I got my dream job in 1977, when I started working at the Garden as an assistant horticulturist. Over the years I have been fortunate to work with talented staff to plan and plant 27 distinct display gardens and four natural areas.

Amy Kerr Wells

 Amy Wells as a child in her grandmother's garden.

Amy in her grandmother’s garden

 Amy Wells, Manager, Youth & Family Programs.

Amy Wells, manager, Youth & Family Programs

Here I am, at age 5, with my Grandma Kerr in her garden in Iowa, which we visited every summer. I loved her garden—she told me that she had a fairy living in her garden, and we would look for it as soon as we got there. Her flowers were big and tall—almost unreal to me as a youngster. Her magical touch in nature really stuck with me; her flowers were amazing, and I did not see them anywhere else.

I still carry that “garden magic” with me. I ask our camp teachers to have kids look for the magic in a seed, a tree, a pond—to take the time to just be in nature, whether that is listening to all the sounds in the Kleinman Family Cove, digging in the soil sandbox, chasing fireflies, or rolling down a hill—taking it all in—the sights, sounds, and smells.

Ann Halley

 Ann Halley as a child.

Ann helps in the backyard garden.

 Ann Halley, Coordinator, Early Childhood Programs.

Ann Halley, coordinator, Early Childhood Programs

My parents were born in Ireland, and, to hear them tell it, were outside every day. We lived on the west side of Chicago, and when I was 3 years old, my dad decided that we would put in a garden. I decided that he needed my help. We gardened, played under the sprinkler, jumped in puddles, and came home covered nearly head to toe in dirt just about every day.

The influence of being exposed to nature—the pretty and the messy—has very much influenced my life. Having this childhood, with parents who encouraged us to “live” outside every chance that we could, allowed me to value its importance and led me to teaching children how to learn in and through nature.

Julia McMahon

 Julia McMahon as a baby.

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 Jullia McMahon, Coordinator, Family Programs.

Julia McMahon, coordinator, Family Programs

I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and “designing” and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we “discovered” a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.

Discover more about our deeply rooted scientists, educators, and horticulturists in our previous post, Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Summer Reading Program launches on June 4

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 3:01pm

Read, play, earn prizes! Kids of all ages are welcome to participate in the Lenhardt Library’s summer reading program at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The Summer Nature Explorer: Reading and Activity Program begins on June 4 and runs through September 5.

With the program, you can encourage the joy of reading and literacy skills in your kids and help reluctant readers enjoy STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) activities to develop critical thinking skills.

Research has shown that reading 20 minutes per day (or 300 minutes per summer) reduces the “summer slide” and enables students to maintain their reading level during summer vacation.

Here’s how the program works:

  • Sign up at the Lenhardt Library and receive your Summer Nature Explore: Reading and Activity Log.
  • Read a book to get a stamp.
  • Play at Family Drop-In Activities sites to get a stamp.
  • Earn 5 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 10 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 15 stamps: Get a prize at the Lenhardt Library.
  • Earn 20 (or more) stamps: Get a certificate of completion and a big prize at the Lenhardt Library.


Summer Nature Explorers

Here are a few books in the Lenhardt Library’s children’s corner to pique your interest. (Books with yellow dot are for younger readers, while those with blue star are for more advanced readers.)

 Explore Honey Bees! by Cindy Blobaum.

Explore Honey Bees!

Blobaum, Cindy. Explore Honey Bees! White River Junction, VT: Nomad Press, 2015.

Amazing honey bees have been pollinating our world for thousands of years. With descriptions and activities, this book covers it all.

Call Number: QL568.A6B56 2015 blue star icon.

 A Pop-Up Book by David A. Carter.

Spring: A Pop-Up Book

Carter, David A. Spring: A Pop-Up Book. New York, NY: Abrams Appleseed, 2016.

A bright and colorful pop-up book of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs that delights!

Call number: QH81.C37 2016 yellow dot icon.

 From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky and Julia Patton.

From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! 

Chernesky, Felicia Sanzari, and Julia Patton. From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! Chicago, Illinois: Albert Whitman & Company, 2015.

From apple varieties on their trees to the cider press, this family’s rhyming visit to an orchard is great fun to read.

Call number: PZ8.3.C42Fr 2015 yellow dot icon.

 When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano and Julie Morstad.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes

Fogliano, Julie, and Julie Morstad. When Green Becomes Tomatoes. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2016.

Poems for each season with lovely illustrations to accompany the journey.

Call number: PS3606.O4225A6 2016 yellow dot icon.

 How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World by Loreen Leedy and Andrew Schuerger.

Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World

Leedy, Loreen, and Andrew Schuerger. Amazing Plant Powers: How Plants Fly, Fight, Hide, Hunt, & Change the World. New York: Holiday House, 2015.

Spike E. Prickles, the superhero plant, teaches all about plant life in a whimsical way.

Call number: QK49.L44 2015 yellow dot icon.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

All-Season Nature Crafts for Kids

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 9:12am

As a mom and working artist, I try to think of ways I can introduce my 3-year-old daughter to the outdoors and the power of imagination through craft projects. And as an employee at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I am inspired by all sorts of family programs and drop-in activities for kids and families that celebrate the outdoors.

What’s fun about nature art is that it starts with an adventure and ends with a surprise. For instance,  the “family of owls” that we created may appear in story time later.

Here are some of the nature-inspired activities and kid-friendly crafts that have come out of my journey as a mother and continue to get the best reviews from Laila, my toughest little critic.

Dirt is cool

Even when she was a baby, my daughter was intrigued by dirt. She is still fascinated by it, in any form. In the long winter, when we’re tired of being cooped up, we bring a little of the outdoors inside and put together a mud pie prep kitchen. Supplies include dropcloth, potting soil, spray bottle, pouring cups, pie plates, and sticks, rocks and/or sand for decorating.

 Mudpie in progress.

Don’t forget to have an old towel underneath your creation station.

 Laila holds her finished mudpie.

The finished muddy treat

Happiness is when mom says it’s OK to play with your food

This is the best way to distract a picky eater, or wow guests with an inexpensive dish you can design with your kids. Laila and I made these creations out of various fruits, vegetables, herbs, and cheeses.

 A cheese and fruit plate in a holiday theme is fun for kids to graze.

Bite-sized holiday snacks are great for kids who graze.

 A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

A vegetable butterfly makes for delicious, healthy snacking.

It’s an outdoors treasure hunt

Laila and I start by taking adventure walks and filling our pockets or a basket with sticks, leaves, flowers, and other found art objects. Everywhere you look, there are free art supplies.

 Laila through the year, enjoying the outdoors.

Every season has something outside to explore.

 Sticks and grass make a portrait of our house; Laila works on a mulch sun.

We made a portrait of our house. Sticks and grass set the scene; Laila works on a mulch-made sun.

 Onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Take gatherings inside to make nature scenes or collages inspired by the seasons. Here, onion skins provide the fall leaves for our tree painting.

Rock ’n’ roll with it

Hand-picked rocks can be collected, cleaned, painted, and polished to transform into precious stones with a story attached. Even little nature lovers can apply homemade or washable paint to their rocks before an adult adds a clear topcoat finish. The rock art can be used as a paperweight or embellishment to a potted plant. Add a pipe cleaner and clothespin to make it a photo holder.

 Laila collects stones on the beach; the painted stones below.

Every child likes to collect rocks.

 A photo holder made from a painted stone, clothespin, and colorful pipe cleaner.

Collected stones can be painted or polished as keepsakes. Here, we’ve added a pipe cleaner and clothespin for a photo holder.

Impromptu art

One day we found pine cones and added fabric, buttons, and ribbon to create a family of owls that found a new home in our Christmas tree. Another time we used sticks, wire, glitter, and beads to build a twinkling mobile.

 A family of hand-made pinecone owls using buttons for eyes and ribbon feet.

A family of pine cone owls made great Christmas ornaments.

When the projects are done, we talk about what we made, where our supplies came from, and who we can share our creations with.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are of outdoor exploration with my mom. I hope Laila someday will feel the same way.

Want to get more nature into your child’s world? Join us for a Nature Preschool open house April 7, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Deeply Rooted: Garden educators, scientists, and horticulturists are made early in life

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 9:39am

A growing body of research tells us that children are better off when they have daily contact with nature.

Nature play encourages creativity and problem solving, boosts academic performance, helps children focus, increases physical activity, improves eyesight, reduces stress, and promotes positive social relationships. 

Chicago Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists credit their personal growth and professional development to early doses of “Vitamin G” (a term used to describe the benefits of exposure to green environments). Their words and childhood pictures best capture the joyful effect of nature on their lives.

Deeply Rooted Educators

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D. Jennifer at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, age 4

Jennifer, age 4, at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Vice president, education and community programs

“Even though I spent the early part of my childhood in Hyde Park, Chicago, I can’t remember a time when as a family, we didn’t take every opportunity to head out of the city to northern Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula, or northern Michigan for camping, canoeing, or hiking. Later, we moved to (almost) rural New York, where my sister, friends, and I became intimately familiar with the acres of woods, fields, and streams behind our house, disappearing for hours to explore our private, imagined world. As an adult, when I had the opportunity at the Chicago Botanic Garden to combine my expertise in learning science with my love of nature and share it with others, I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”

Eileen Prendergast Eileen at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan, age 4

Eileen, age 4, at Silver Lake in Grand Junction, Michigan

Eileen Prendergast

Director of education

“The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”—Richard Louv, journalist and author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

“Some of my fondest memories of childhood include our summer vacations at Silver Lakes in southwestern Michigan. My brothers and cousins and I would spend all day, every day, playing in the sand and splashing in the water. We’d take the rowboat out to the ‘lily pads’ to see if we could catch any frogs—we were (disappointingly) never successful, though we did manage to get the rowboat stuck once for what seemed like an hour, but was probably just a few panicked minutes.

I have a particular fond memory of my close cousin Jean and I filling buckets with sand, mixing in just the right amount of water, and carefully making a batch of sand pancakes to cook on our folding chair stove. The simple pleasures derived from the freedom to play and explore outside throughout my childhood reinforces for me the importance of ensuring those same opportunities for play time in nature are available for my own children at home and the children participating in the programs at the Garden—making sure there are places to run, to hide, to dig, to splash, to have fun.”

Julia McMahon Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania

Julia as a toddler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Julia McMahon

Coordinator, family programs

“I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with a landscaped front yard and a wooded backyard. I spent hours jumping from stone to stone in my mother’s rock garden, picking blueberries from bushes in our front yard before the birds gobbled them up, and ‘designing’ and planting the annual bed along the walkway to our front door. When I was 7 or 8 years old, my best friend and I were allowed to explore the woods by ourselves. One time we ‘discovered’ a plant we called the umbrella plant. It was about 5 inches tall with horizontally held, fan-like branches covered in scale-like leaves. We excitedly brought it home and, although it didn’t last long, the impression did.

“Preschool educators have long known that animals, plants, water, and other aspects of the natural world delight children and draw them in as learners.”—Natural Start Alliance

This exposure to nature and being allowed to explore outside on my own shaped many aspects of my life, including my decisions to study plant science at Cornell University and earn a master’s degree in elementary education at Loyola University, Chicago. My position as family programs coordinator at the Chicago Botanic Garden combines my fondness for the natural world and my love of children and teaching. I look forward to teaching and sharing similar experiences with children at the new Regenstein Learning Campus.”

Amaris Alanis-Ribeiro Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River clean-up

Amaris, age 14, at the Chicago River cleanup

Amaris Alanis Ribeiro

Manager, secondary education

“Here I am in my teens at a Chicago River cleanup in the woods, holding a toad. I was lucky enough to have attended a Chicago public high school that got me out in the forest preserves and into nature. The experiences are part of why I studied ecology, and also why I wanted to inspire other Chicago teens to do the same. Now, I recruit Chicago public high school students for Science First and College First.”

Deeply Rooted Conservation Scientists

Kayri Havens, Ph.D. Kay on vacation in Maroon Bells, Colorado, age 7

Kay, age 7, on vacation at Maroon Bells in Colorado

Kayri Havens

Medard and Elizabeth Welch Senior Director, Ecology and Conservation

“My best childhood memories were all outdoors…playing in the garden, growing vegetables, picking up seashells, going bird-watching. That love of nature has stayed with me, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to have a career that allows me to continue to explore and study plants and the natural world.”

Pati Vitt, Ph.D. Pati in Virginia, age 6

Pati, age 6, in Virginia

Patt Vitt

Susan and Roger Stone Curator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank

“There are very few pictures of me as a child, most of them posed…except this one. It is outside in an open field, where I and my siblings tramped around at will, falling in love with the outdoors.”

Andrea Kramer, Ph.D. Andrea in her backyard in Nebraska, age 2

Andrea, age 2, in her backyard in Nebraska

Andrea Kramer

Conservation scientist, restoration ecology

“I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in the corn belt where, as you can imagine, trees were not very common. I spent a lot of quality time either climbing in or sitting under this particular tree when I was young. A few years after this photo was taken, a family of owls took up residence in it. I can’t imagine a childhood that didn’t involve nature play—climbing trees or sitting quietly with binoculars to watch owls interact with each other and the plants that they called home helped me see the world from a larger vantage point, and made me want to understand it by becoming a scientist.”

Jeremie Fant, Ph.D. Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie, age 6, at home in Adelaide, Australia, with a friendly kangaroo

Jeremie Fant

Conservation scientist, molecular ecology lab manager

“Growing up in a part of Australia where the weather was often nice, it was easy to spend most of your time outside. I am not sure I can remember when I was not outside in flip-flops and board shorts. No matter what we were doing, there was always something to get me excited. Sometimes it was something as amazing as a dolphin swimming close to the beach or a kangaroo caught by surprise on our hikes. It was clear from a young age that the thing that got me so excited was the flora, and a botanist was born. The smell of the eucalyptus still sends memories flooding of hikes after rains, recalling the wonderful discovery of small patches of donkey orchids in winter.

Ultimately, I combined this love of native flora with working in the garden. I would often spend afternoons walking through the Adelaide Botanic Garden for inspiration and to marvel at its collections. I went to university to study horticultural sciences and volunteered on weekends at the botanic gardens as an undergraduate. All of these interactions played an obvious role in my life’s trajectory as a scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.”

Deeply Rooted Horticulturists

Lisa Hilgenberg Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa, age 3, with her dad in Iowa

Lisa Hilgenberg

Horticulturist, Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

“My mother was a teacher and felt that it was so important to incorporate learning play. Here’s what she had to say: ‘Lisa, there was probably no time in your early years that you were not connected to nature. Starting with the simple joy of playing outdoors, you watered flowers for grandma and dad, made daisy chains, raked and played in the leaves, built snowmen, ice skated, and sculpted sand castles at Lake Harriet, Minneapolis. You planted gardens, learned to fish at Deer Lake. You loved having collections of rocks and leaves (author’s note: yes, I majored in geology and my childhood rock collections are still in the basement). You showed a love of dogs, gerbils, fish, white mice, even squirrels (you fed them peanut butter crackers at the back door). You were bonded to nature as a young child and it continues to this day!’”

Heather Sherwood Heather in a greenhouse in California, age 7

Heather, age 7, in a greenhouse in California

Heather Sherwood

Senior horticulturist, English Walled Garden and English Oak Meadow

“In my early childhood, I remember playing at my friend’s house. They had a very old forsythia bush, perfect for ‘house building,’ great tunnels, and hours of imaginative fun! When we were a bit older, the same best friend and I would meet down by the creek (between our two houses about a mile from each of us). We would spend hours walking in the creek bed, looking for crayfish, spiders, plants. (We brought skunkweed home to harass our siblings.) We would build forts with branches and grasses. When I was 12 years old, on a family vacation, we went to an enormous conservatory at the Grand Ole Opry Hotel. I walked into a breathtaking environment, and I knew. I knew I wanted to make people feel that same rush, excitement, wonder, as I did, and I was going to do it with plants. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Tom Weaver Tom in Little Canada, Minnesota, age 7

Tom, age 7, in Little Canada, Minnesota

Tom Weaver

Horticulturist, Waterfall Garden and Dwarf Conifer Garden

“This picture (left) was the first time I had flowers of my own, and it was so exciting! Even to this day I still try to make sure I have at least one zinnia plant somewhere in my life, whether it’s in a garden I work in at the Chicago Botanic Garden or at home because I fell so in love with the flowers as a child.”

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Painting with Veggies

Fri, 03/25/2016 - 11:08am

We’ve discovered a fun way to encourage our Camp CBG campers to try a salad. Many kids turn up their noses when they hear the word, but after painting with food, our campers are eager to “dig into” their creation.

For little ones, this project is easy and fun to do with a grown-up and provides opportunities to identify colors and start learning about plant parts. Older kids can use new kitchen tools (with adult supervision) and discuss what is really a fruit or a vegetable

Watch Painting with Veggies on YouTube.

Supply list:
Cutting board
Sharp knife
Food processor or grater
White plates

1 red bell pepper (see notes)
2 carrots
¾ cup chopped pineapple
½ head red cabbage
1 head broccoli (see notes)
Favorite salad dressing—we used ranch

Notes from the chef/artists:

  • Bell peppers don’t work well in the food processor. I recommend finely chopping them with a good knife. 
  • Broccoli was a bit difficult to work with. Next time I’d use a bag of broccoli slaw.
  • Other vegetables I’d like to try are fresh corn (off the cob), chopped celery, black beans, and dried fruits or nuts.
  • This would be fun to do with a spiralizer, which would add a different texture. Check out this post by fourth-grade teacher Lindsay for eight great spiralizer ideas.

Prepare veggies by shredding in a food processor, and place each kind in a bowl. Use your imagination to “paint” your canvas (plate). Make sure to take a picture before digging in. Once you are done creating, top with dressing and enjoy.

 Face made from veggies.For details about more fun for the family, visit Camp registration is open. Register for Camp CBG today.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Make a Mini-Terrarium Holiday Ornament

Thu, 12/10/2015 - 3:35pm

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. 

 The finished moss terrarium ornament.

The finished moss terrarium ornament

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

 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.

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

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

 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.

 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

These Greeting Cards Will Spice Up the Holidays

Tue, 11/24/2015 - 2:59pm

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!)

 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.


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.


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. 


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


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.

 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

Top Five Reasons to Choose Nature Preschool

Mon, 11/09/2015 - 11:17am

Anyone who reads the volumes of research can easily see all the reasons why a nature preschool is not just a real preschool, but should be a standard for all preschool environments to aspire to attain.

Here are my top five reasons why a nature preschool should be the choice of all parents when deciding on their child’s first preschool experience.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

Growing and planting teaches a valuable lesson in change over time, and sticking with a project to see results that may take a while to be revealed.

No. 1: Children in nature preschools learn by doing and with hands-on activities.

You must be hands-on when you learn in nature. You cannot be a passive learner; you must engage. Most nature preschools do not put a heavy emphasis on early academics. Instead, they opt for a balanced curriculum that seeks to develop the “whole child”—i.e., cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and creative development.

According to Ken Finch, president and founder of Green Hearts (a conservation organization dedicated to restoring and strengthening the bonds between children and nature), “Nature preschool students truly learn how to learn…developing the curiosity and joy that should pervade all education, while practicing key social skills such as sharing, waiting one’s turn, and following simple directions.”

These are all principles that the National Association for the Education of Young Children endorses and embraces.

No. 2: Time learning in nature supports creativity and problem solving.

Many children spend time in preschool working on one-answer solutions. Their work is very cut and dry, limiting the amount of critical thinking or creativity needed for the answer. Play in nature allows children to try several solutions to a problem. Nature is unpredictable, and often, answers might not be what we would like, but we learn from this too. A great example is “Spike”, the titan arum that did not bloom here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Was the anticipation and all the new knowledge that so many people learned while waiting a waste of time? Of course not! Spike went back to the greenhouses and is being studied. Our horticulturists have gained even greater knowledge of titan arum cultivation for Spike’s failure to bloom.

Stephen Kellert, social ecologist and senior research scholar at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies states, “Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”

Children engaging with nature experience similar failures, and learn from them. They try new ways to solve problems, and find out more about why their solutions did not work for the next time. Nature allows for children to discover how to adapt.

No. 3: Time spent in nature helps reduce symptoms of ADHD.

 Infographic of health benefits of children being active in nature.

This infographic created by the National Environmental Education Foundation is also a quick scan of facts about why being active in nature makes kids healthier. Click here to download or view larger.

Researchers Dr. Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor of the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory have dedicated themselves to studying the relationship between physical environment and wellness. They have done a number of studies in particular related to ADHD and time in nature. These studies have shown children with ADHD have improved concentration after time spent in nature. I have witnessed firsthand how children respond inside the classroom after spending time outside in nature. They really are ready to listen, concentrate, and settle into tasks either on their own or with others. Think about how you feel after you return from a walk or time outside in your garden—don’t you feel stress-free?

There are many other health benefits related to nature preschool. A good report to find out about more of them is Health Benefits to Children from Contact with the Outdoors and Nature

No. 4: Children who attend a nature preschool are better observers.

“Nature literacy awakens habits of perception (sensory awareness) and cultivates a rich vocabulary of search images (knowledge of place). Through these, our students connect to the natural world in a meaningful way.”—Fostering Outdoor Observation Skills, A Project of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ North American Conservation Education Strategy 2011.

Children must take the time to listen for birds, look for small clues that animals might have come down a trail, and notice the differences between leaves on two different plants or trees. Observation in nature is not just about knowing the names for plants or creatures, but being able to recognize them when out on a hike.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

Allowing time to examine the outdoors in detail makes children better overall observers, and better able to focus in class.

No. 5: Nature Preschool fosters an appreciation of the world around children.

When a child engages in an activity of any kind, an appreciation develops. Think of children exposed to various genres of music; they become better attuned to musical nuances. It is the same for children who spend time on a regular basis in nature. They see the beauty, explore the changes, and learn to enjoy their time outside. This appreciation is carried over to adulthood.

“Research on human development and learning has long established that the early childhood years are a crucial period in the formation of lasting adult values. Could we do any better than to ensure that one of those values is a deep love for the outdoors?”

“Children enrolled in a nature-focused preschool for even a single year, will probably get more direct contact with the outdoors than they will have in all their subsequent years of K-12 schooling.”—Nature-Focused Preschools: Putting the Heart First in Environmental Education by Ken Finch

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

It is the frequency of explorations in nature that are probably the greatest benefit of a nature preschool.

In her article, “The Wonders of Nature: Honoring Children’s Way of Knowing,” Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., notes, “Early experiences with the natural world have also been positively linked with the sense of wonder. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a lifelong source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning.

Sadly, the ability to experience the world…as a source of wonder tends to diminish over time. This seems to be especially true in Western cultures, where for the sake of objective understandings; children are encouraged to focus their learning on cognitive models, rather than on first-hand investigations of the natural environment.”

Further reading and resources:

As a parent, can you choose a learning outcome for your child that is more important than that “sense of wonder?” Even for an adult, wonder is so important in order to be a lifelong learner.

As you make the choice of a preschool for your child, I hope that you will take some time to read a bit more on nature preschool values. Are these indoor/outdoor classrooms just the latest new kid on the block, or is there more to this trend? Which ways do you find best for children to learn?

Online registration for the Garden’s 2016 Nature Preschool program begins December 7, 2015. Save the date: Open Houses for the program will be held January 14 and April 7. Click here for more information on the program.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

An Ode to OAKtober!

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 2:56pm

Did you know that pin oaks hold their anthocyanin-rich leaves through the fall? Or that the oldest oak at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a white oak that lives near the Lake Cook entrance? Download our infographic below to learn more about the popular and beautiful native oak trees we are celebrating this October and beyond.

Oaktober infographic to color

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Save the Earth, Watch Dandelions Grow

Thu, 09/24/2015 - 6:07pm

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.


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.

 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.) 

 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

Easy Peas-y: Planting Pea Seeds with Little Sprouts

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 10:08am

Plant, water, and grow! Whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, teaching children to plant seeds is a simple and authentic way to help them engage with nature. It’s an activity that the littlest of sprouts can do “all by myself,” or at least with minimal help from you.

 Little Diggers pea planting in the raised beds.

Growing future gardeners in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden

Planting seeds leads to discussions about what seeds and plants need to grow and how food gets to our tables. Watering is a simple chore young children are capable of doing; it teaches them about responsibility and helps them feel they are making a contribution to the family or classroom. 

Students from our Little Diggers class, ages 2 to 4, planted peas indoors in mid-March and transplanted them outside into the raised beds in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden in mid-April. Come follow the steps we took to get there.

March: Planting the Pea Seeds Indoors

Supply List:

  • Seeds
  • Soilless potting mix or seed-starting potting mix in a wide-mouth container
  • Plant pots (plastic or biodegradable, roughly 2.5 inches in diameter)
  • Trowels, spray bottles, or watering cans
  • Plastic seedling tray with lid

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 10–40 minutes of actual planting (depending on the size of the group)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10–15 minutes

 Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

Large pea seeds are easy for small fingers to grasp.

 Use this kind of plastic seedling tray and lid.

Here I am modeling the latest in seedling trays. You can purchase these and our other supplies at your local garden center or home improvement store.

Select seeds that are big—the smaller the hands, the bigger the seed should be—and quick to sprout, or germinate. Also consider the amount of space the mature plants will occupy, and the time of year you are planting. Some seeds can be planted during the cool spring, while others should go in the ground once the threat of frost has passed.

We chose ‘Tom Thumb’ pea seeds because they are large enough for little hands to easily manipulate, they germinate in 7–14 days, they thrive in the cool spring weather, and they only grow to be 8 inches tall and 8 inches wide, making them great for small-space gardens and containers.

Tip: Some other large seeds suitable for little hands are sunflowers, beans, nasturtium (edible flower), pumpkin, and other squash. For more details about how and when to plant these seeds visit

 A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

A low, wide trug full of soil makes filling pots easy for younger gardeners.

 Watering the seeds in is the best part of planting.

Watering in the seeds is the best part of planting.


Set out the potting mix in a wide-mouth container such as a flexible plastic tub, sand bucket, or cement mixing tray on the ground. Have trowels, pots, seeds, and spray bottles ready.

Tip: A soil container with a wide opening will lead to less soil on the ground. Also, more children will be able to plant at the same time.

Using a trowel, fill the pot with soil. Set two pea seeds on the soil and push them down ½- to 1-inch deep. Then cover the seeds with soil. Spray with a spray bottle until the soil is saturated.

Tip: Planting depth will depend on the type of seeds you are planting. Read the back of the seed packet for details.

Finally, each child should label their pot. We used craft sticks to easily identify each child’s plant.

Tip: Pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate. I potted up 10–15 extras. Every child needs to feel successful and have peas to transplant when the time comes. Once kids have planted seeds a few times and are a little older, you won’t need to pot up extras. Having seeds fail is the next great gardening lesson for more experienced young gardeners.

 Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It's a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

Our young grower adds his pot to the tray. It’s a good idea to pot up extra seeds in case some don’t germinate.

 Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on slightly open helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don't grow fungus.

Craft sticks easily identify each child’s plant. Keeping the top lid on, but slightly open, helps air circulate around the plantings, so they don’t grow fungus.

Put the containers on the plastic tray and cover with a clear plastic lid. This will keep moisture in and will require less frequent watering. Allow the soil surface to dry out slightly between watering. Using the misting setting on the sprayer works well because it doesn’t create a hole in the soil and expose the seed like a watering can will.

Tip: Watch for white fungus growing on the soil surface. If this occurs, remove the plastic lid. This will kill the fungus and promote germination. If you will be away from the classroom or home for a few days, put the plastic lid on so the soil doesn’t dry out. Remove it when you return.

Tip: Peas don’t respond well to transplanting, so we planted the seeds in biodegradable pots to avoid this problem. These pots break down in the soil, allowing the roots to continue to grow undisturbed.

 Seeds are absorbing water.  The roots and stems have started to grow.  True leaves have appeared.  Getting ready put our seedlings in the ground.

April: Transplanting the Pea Plants into the Garden

Supply List:

  • Pea plants
  • Trowels
  • Spray bottles or watering cans

Set-up Time: 10 minutes

Activity Time: 20–30 minutes or more (depending of the size of the group and the number of helpers)

Appropriate for Ages: 2 and up

Clean-up Time: 10 minutes

Choose a sunny location that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight every day and has well-drained soil. We planted our peas in the raised beds at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden.

Bring all the supplies out to the site. Have each child choose where they would like to dig their hole. Pass out a trowel and plant to each child. Dig a hole as deep as the soil in the pot. Place the plant, pot and all, in the hole. Fill in the space around the plant with soil and water the plants.

Check the peas daily and water them with a watering can or hose when the soil is slightly dry. About 50 – 55 days after planting, these shelling peas will be ready to harvest and eat! Come see the plants that the students of our Little Diggers class planted in the raised beds, just south of the orchard at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden!

 Watering seedlings in the raised beds.

Remember to water in your seedlings when you put them in the ground!

 Watering seedlings in the raised bed.

Sunshine and a good squirt of water will help this pea seedling grow!

Direct Sowing: Easy Peas-y Approach

 it's fun.

Direct sowing is the easiest approach—and often the most successful with early spring vegetables. Not to mention: it’s fun.

As a working parent, I chose this approach with my almost three-year-old. All you really need is a sunny spot with well-drained soil, seeds (we used ‘Tom Thumb’ peas because we have a small garden), a small shovel (trowel) and water. Choose a sunny spot for planting (6–8 hours of direct sun).

First I showed him how to draw lines in the soil with his trowel (they should be ½– to 1-inch deep). Then he dropped seeds along the lines. I wasn’t concerned about spacing 2 inches apart as recommended on the seed packet because I can always thin them out once the seeds start to grow. He covered the seeds up and watered them with the hose. Every evening, we enjoy checking to make sure the soil is damp.

Tip: If you’re little one is getting impatient, these peas can be harvested early and eaten, pod and all, like snow peas!

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Students Learn that Science Can Be Beautiful

Fri, 02/27/2015 - 9:10am

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show

 Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

 It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

 Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”


  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at for more information about these programs. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Winter Infographic

Fri, 01/16/2015 - 9:25am

Think plants look brown and dead in winter? There’s plenty of life still going on beneath the surface!

 An infographic about winter.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

20 Years of College First at the Garden

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 9:20am

Twenty years ago, I was running school field trip programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden when then-education manager Alan Rossman received a grant to start a brand new program called “College First.” This program would use the Garden site and staff to introduce 12 students from three Chicago Public Schools to careers in the green industry. He hired retired teacher Gwen Yvonne Greenwood to coordinate the program and enlist staff from all over the Garden to mentor and teach these young people.

 Six high school students are posing in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden, wearing dark green uniform College First T-shirts

These six students from 2003 are all college grads with jobs now.

At the time, there weren’t many programs like College First anywhere in the country. College First was even unique among the other museum teen program start-ups, in that our goals were not merely to make the institution more relevant to this age group, but also to provide a springboard to meaningful careers in science-related fields. Who knew that 20 years later, with some changes and improvements along the way, this small program would evolve and grow into the Science Career Continuum we have today?

We now bring 60 students (like Mely Guzman, whom I blogged about earlier this year) from all over Chicago to the Garden every summer and expose them to environmental and conservation sciences, with the hope that a few of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field, and maybe go on to do something important for our planet. To date, College First has served more than 500 students from 116 schools. The majority of them have attended college and have entered—or are entering—productive careers. Many of them have pursued science-related careers as a direct result of their experiences at the Garden.

 At the reception of the College First 20-year reunion.

Program manager, Amaris Alanis Ribeiro (standing on the right) reminds a group of former students to visit Wonderland Express after they are finished eating.

We celebrated the success of College First on December 14, with a reunion party at the Garden, including a visit to Wonderland Express, for all past students, instructors, mentors, donors, and their families. More than 200 people attended the event. In between the many reunion hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement for current students, we gave all program participants an opportunity to reflect on their experiences by telling us their stories on video, writing comments on a talk-back wall, and tweeting about the event while a live Twitter feed displayed the comments.

 College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on a mural outside the auditorium.

College First participants shared their thoughts and feelings on the comment wall outside the auditorium.

A former program coordinator, William Moss, is now a gardening guru and media celebrity. (Even our instructors have moved on to great things in their careers!) William presided as master of ceremonies during a presentation to recognize all the people who have made this program possible. We honored staff mentors, Louise Egerton-Warburton, Jeremie Fant, and Tom Soulsby as outstanding mentors. The College First 20th Anniversary event was made possible by the generous support of Joel Friedman of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Awards were presented to Annette Kleinman and family of the Sheridan Foundation, the W.P. & H.B. White Foundation, and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation for their generous financial support over the years.

 William Moss at the podium.

William Moss—television celebrity, author, gardener, and all-around good guy—helped us to honor all the people who have made this program successful.

For me, this was a very rewarding event. It was such a pleasure to see so many past and present students coming together and sharing in the success of this program, especially those who are now adults with spouses and children of their own. This group represents our scientific future.

 Group photo of past College First participants.

A total of 57 past and present College First participants attended the celebration and posed for a picture. Wow!

I wish each and every one of these smart and talented young people a happy new year and all the best in their bright futures!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Wearable Indian Corn

Sun, 11/09/2014 - 7:50am

I always look forward to seeing Indian corn in the market and finding it in autumn decorations. Indian corn—in its range of hues from blue to deep maroon to oranges, golds, and yellows—extends the colors of the season long after the tree leaves have faded and been raked away. It is one of November’s icons, reminding us of the cultural and botanical history of the continent.

“You call it corn; we call it maize.”

Or so the 1970s TV ad for Mazola margarine told us.

Long ago, “corn” used to be the term for any grain seed, including barley, wheat, and rye, so naturally the new world plant “maize”—botanically known as Zea mays—was labeled as another kind of corn when it was introduced in Europe. For some reason, the name stuck, and we all think of the sweet yellow stuff on our dinner plates (and its close relatives) as the one and only “corn.”

 A comparison of teosinte vs. modern corn, Zea mays.

This drawing shows the similarities between modern corn and its ancestor, teosinte, after 10,000 years of cultivation. Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation

There are actually many varieties of maize-corn. Archaeologists are pretty sure that all of them resulted from the domestication and selective cultivation of the grass teosinte (pronounced tay-oh-SIN-tee), around 10,000 years ago by the people living in what is now Mexico. Over time, maize became a staple crop, yielding different varieties of nutritious and versatile grains throughout the American continent.

 Three ears of Indian corn leaning against a pumpkin.

The farmers in my neighborhood sell Indian corn in bundles of three alongside gourds, pumpkins, and bundles of straw.

Indian corn is related to popcorn. These kinds of maize differ from other kinds in that they have a harder outer coating and a starchy interior with a bit of water inside the seed, or kernel. Popcorn pops when the kernel is heated quickly at a high temperature, causing the water inside the seed to suddenly turn into steam, inflating the starch. The sweet corn we love to eat and the dent corn used for tortilla chips and livestock feed will not produce a fluffy white snack when heated.

We can exploit these properties of Indian corn and turn the kernels into necklace beads to wear during the season. 

How to make an Indian corn necklace

You will need the following:

  • Indian corn (one average-size cob will make two necklaces)
  • a sharp embroidery needle, long, with a large eye
  • string; you can use ordinary sewing thread, but a little heavier is better
  • a pot of water to cook and soften the corn
 Indian corn.

My daughter chose this bundle of Indian corn because she liked both the deep red of cob on the left and the pinkish seeds of the one in the middle—but not for the same necklace.

First, remove all the kernels from the cob. You can wedge a butter knife between the rows of kernels and twist to pop out the seeds. Once you get some of the cob stripped, you can rub the kernels loose with your thumb.

 a bowl full of colored corn seeds, or kernels.

These seeds have been removed from the cob and are ready for boiling to soften them.

Place the corn kernels in a pot of water and boil for 30 minutes. (This isn’t hot enough for the corn to pop.) Test for doneness by removing three  kernels. If you can push a needle through each of them easily, they are ready. Remove the pot from the heat and allow to cool. You can add cold water to cool them faster, but be sure to leave them soaking so they do not dry out, even when you are stringing them. (Pushing the needle through dry kernels can be a painful experience.)

While the corn is cooling, cut a string about three times as long as you would like your necklace to be. (You can work in shorter sections and tie them together, but it won’t look as nice.) Thread the needle and double the string; then knot the ends.

Now, select kernels in the colors you like, or pick them up randomly so the string resembles the color pattern of the corn cob. Try to pick softer pieces. Hold each kernel by the sides, and push the needle through the middle of the kernel so that the needle is not pointing toward your finger. Then slide it down the string. Leave a few inches of string below the first piece so you have some string to tie when you’re finished.  

 This image shows how holding the seed by the sides puts fingers out of the way of the sharp end of the needle.

It is very important to hold the kernel by its sides as you poke the needle through the middle of the seed.

If the kernel is too hard and resists piercing, do not force it! Try to push the needle through at another angle, or discard that piece and select a softer one. This is important because you will prick yourself with the sharp needle if you are not careful. In fact, you’ll probably stab yourself at least once even if you are careful, so this is not a project for very young children. 

Pack the moist seeds close together on the string. As they dry, they will shrink in size. You may want to slide them together a little tighter so the string doesn’t show, but you’ll also want to leave enough wiggle room so the necklace has flexibility. When your string of corn is long enough, allow the seeds to dry completely. Then tie the ends together and you will have an attractive necklace to wear to Thanksgiving dinner or other festive gatherings!

 Indian corn necklaces.

The finished necklaces look great layered in different lengths and colors.

One final note: when I made a corn necklace in third grade as part of a unit on Native American culture, I was under the impression that indigenous people of long ago made and wore necklaces like this. No way. All corn was grown for food, and it  was needed to sustain the population, so it would not have been turned into jewelry. This season, we can be thankful for the plentiful food we have to eat, and we can appreciate the beautiful colors of the corn as decoration during the feast.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and