Tag: plant science for children (Page 2 of 5)

Plant Science: Plant Families I: The Food Crops

In a previous post, we have discussed the Classification of Organisms. Now might be a good time to learn about some of the common plant families.

Learning the characteristics of common plant families can make identification of specific plants easier, plus gives us a sense of how plants are related. Most of us recognize the most common crop plants grown in fields and gardens, so let’s start with those.

Important Note:  You would think plant names would be stay the same once they were created, but it turns out that with advances in genetics and efforts to add consistency, many of the names are changing. Keep in mind that all these names could change next week.

  1. The Carrot Family – Apiaceae

This family used to be called the Umbelliferae. They are still characterized by having flat, clustered flowers called “umbels.”

Examples of this family include:

carrot-flower-2carrots (this is a carrot flower)


queen-annes-lace-beautifuland Queen Anne’s lace. Can you see the similarities in these flowers?

2. The Sunflower Family – Asteraceae

This large plant family used to be called the Compositae. What appear to be single flowers are actually a “composite” or collection of tiny disk and/or ray flowers.

Examples of the sunflower family include:



artichoke-flowerand artichoke, as well as many ornamental flowers,

mix-of-zinnias-87like these zinnias.

3. The Bean Family -Fabaceae

Many common food plants belong to this family, including beans, peas, carob, lentils, mesquite, etc. The seeds are contained in pods. The flowers are complex.



tepary-bean-flowertepary beans, and

blackeyedpea-bloom3black-eyed pea.

4. The Mint Family – Lamiaceae

The members of this family include many common herbs. Most have square (four-sided) stems and many have similar tubular flowers.

mint-flower -spear-81

This flower structure is from a spearmint plant.



These are the tubular flowers of Mexican oregano.

5. The Lily Family – Liliaceae Edit: Now Amaryllidaceae

The plants of this family are known to have special swollen structures for storing food, such as bulbs or corms.

Examples include:

green-onion-bulbonions (the bulb),

onion-flowersonion (the flower)


garlic-chive-flowergarlic chives, etc.

rain-lilyOrnamental lilies also belong to this family.

6. The Grass Family- Poaceae

Grasses are unique plants because they grow from the base instead of the tips. Many crops are members of this family including rice, corn, wheat and barley.




Grass flowers consist of spikelets.

7. The Rose Family – Rosaceae

The flowers of members of the rose family typically have five petals and five sepals. Many of the different types of fruit we eat come from plants that belong to the rose family.

Examples include:


good-apple-flowerand apples, as well as pears, peaches and even strawberries.

8. The Nightshade Family – Solanaceae

Our final plant family contains crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. The flower petals are often fused together rather than separate.

tomatoes-blossoms-flowerstomato flowers (public domain image)

sonoran-nightshade-with-leaves-66nightshade flowers


Plant Family Quiz
(Answers below)


A. To which plant family does dill belong based on its flower structure?

plant-family-testB. How about this type of sage?

swallowtail-on-flowerC. Any ideas what plant family these yellow flowers belong to?


Want to learn more? Feel free to leave questions in the comments.



To see our complete plant science lessons, either visit the plant science category (newest posts to oldest posts) or the plant science section of our experiment archive page (links to posts in order).

Looking for books about plants for children? Be sure to visit our growing list of gardening and plant science books for kids, as well as our list of children’s books about seeds.

For more activities, try our Gardening/Plant Science for Kids Pinterest board.

Quiz Answers

  • a. Dill belongs to the carrot family, Apiaceae
  • b. Sage belongs to the mint family, Lamiaceae
  • c. The yellow flowers belong to the sunflower family, Asteraceae

Plant Science: Chlorophyll and Other Leaf Pigments

Plants have chemicals in their leaves that can convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to food in the form of sugars. The process is called photosynthesis. The chemicals in the leaves that absorb light are pigments. The most common pigments that convert sunlight energy are green pigments called chlorophyll. Other pigments found in leaves include xanthophylls, carotenes, and anthocyanins (see below for definitions).

Chromatography Activity

How do scientists study the colors in plants? One way is to perform a simple color separation or “chromatography.”  Let’s look for the pigments found in growing plant leaves, in this case fresh spinach which is full of pigments.

The chromatography requires time, at least an hour, so prepare your children in advance. It also requires rubbing alcohol.  Read and follow the warnings on the alcohol bottle label carefully.

You will need:

  • A fresh spinach leaf per child
  • Small clean containers, like a yogurt cups or jars, one per child
  • Tool to chop the spinach leaves (requires adult supervision)
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Stirring utensil that will fit in containers
  • Coffee filter cut into about ¾-inch-wide strips that will fit into the container from top to bottom, one per container

Chop up the spinach leaves into tiny pieces. Put the chopped bits into the bottom of the containers. They should cover the bottom in a layer, up to ¼-inch deep. Pour in just enough rubbing alcohol to cover the leaf bits. Stir briefly. Slide the coffee filter strip into the container, so that the bottom touches the alcohol/leaf mixture. Rest it against the side. Now wait for about an hour.

The alcohol should slowly move up dry part of the coffee filter, carrying the pigments as it goes. The heavier pigments will travel more slowly, the lightest most quickly. Once the wet alcohol “front” nears the top of the strip of coffee filter, remove it. Check the colors. Lay it on a piece of paper towel or paper and let it dry a bit. Often the colors of the pigments will show more intensely once the alcohol has evaporated.

Your coffee filter might look like this:


The green bands at the bottom are chlorophyll pigments. The plant uses chlorophyll to convert the sun’s energy into food. If you look closely, there are two bands of green, with some yellow. Those are the two chlorophyll pigments, named chlorophyll a, and chlorophyll b. Chlorophyll a is the main type of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll b is an accessory pigment that captures light energy from a broader range of light and transfers it to chlorophyll a.

Just above the green is an intense yellow band. The yellow is a group of pigments called xanthophylls. Xanthophylls are what make corn yellow. When chickens eat plants with xanthophylls, they can use it in their eggs to make the yolk a deeper yellow.

At the very top, is a thin orange band. Those pigments are carotenes, named for the first plant tissue they were isolated from, carrot roots.  Carotenes are also found in pumpkins and squash. Carotenes are also used for photosynthesis.

Now compare the colors in the growing spinach leaf to those of the autumn leaf. What colors are the same? What colors are missing in the leaves? What colors are in the leaves but not in the spinach?


Autumn leaves lose the green pigments first. The two types of chlorophyll actually break down as the leaves begin senescence. Does the plant make the the orange and yellow carotenes and xanthophylls in response to losing the chlorophyll? No, those pigments have been there all along in the growing leaf, but masked by the deeper green chlorophyll. When the green disappears, we can see the other pigments.

Another color, however, wasn’t present before. The intense red pigments found in some autumn leaves are called anthocyanins, and are known for making flowers, and vegetables like beets, red or purple. It turns out that certain trees make a lot of anthocyanins in their leaves in the fall. Leaves don’t produce it earlier in the year.

Right now scientists don’t know for sure why certain types of trees produce the anthocyanins. One suggestion is that the anthocyanins act like sunscreen to help protect the leaves while the last bits of nutrients are being moved out and down to the roots for storage over the winter. Another suggestion is that red trees are less visible to insects. Harmful insects may lay their eggs on trees in the winter, and may choose trees that are yellow over those that are red.



Want to learn more? Feel free to leave questions in the comments.



To see our complete plant science lessons, either visit the plant science category (newest posts to oldest posts) or the plant science section of our experiment archive page (links to posts in order).

Looking for books about plants for children? Be sure to visit our growing list of gardening and plant science books for kids, as well as our list of children’s books about seeds.

For more activities, try our Gardening/Plant Science for Kids Pinterest board.

Plant Science: Investigating Flowers

Not all plants have flowers, but those that do are widespread and abundant. Flowers are important because they attract pollinators and are where the seeds develop.

Our post today is inspired by the children’s picture book Flowers Are Calling by Rita Gray and illustrated by Kenard Pak.

With lightly-humorous, rhyming text, the author encourages children to compare kinds of animals that are attracted to flowers and serve as pollinators with animals that are not likely to be pollinators. Is a snake a pollinator? “No, not a snake, for goodness sake!” For a full review of the book see our sister blog, Wrapped in Foil.

As Rita Gray points out, pollinators are attracted to different aspects of the flower such as color, shape, time of opening, and smell. Let’s investigate flower shape and color with a series of activities.

Flower petal number and shape

Some flowers look different from others based on the number of petals they have.

Desert-rosemallow-flower05Simple dicot plants (those with two cotyledons) often have flowers with 5 petals, or petals in multiples of 4 or 5. If you’ve forgotten which flower parts are petals, check the diagram below.

decent-orchid-tree-flower-kyreneHow many petals does this orchid tree flower have?

sorrel-flower-101How about this sorrel flower?

lesquerella-flowersHow many petals does this flower have?

lesquerella-bee-flowerThe lesquerella plant is still a dicot, even though its flowers only have 4 petals.


Plants like grass, corn, rice, and chives are monocots. They often have flower petals in multiples of 3. This garlic chive has flowers with 6 petals (3 x 2).

common-toadflax-flower-1Sometimes the flower petals are modified into different shapes, however, so it isn’t as easy to count them. Pollinators must push their way into a closed flower like this.

AA-honeybee-going-into-snapdragon-3Check out this honey bee pushing its way into a snapdragon flower.

aster-flower-close-oursSometimes what appears to be a flower is really a cluster of small flowers. Although this aster looks like a single flower, botanically speaking it is a group of flowers. See the recent zinnia flowers and their structures post for more details about this, as well as instructions for a classic flower dissection activity.

Activity 1:  Flower Petal Counting

Go on a walk through a garden or natural area. Check the flowers and count the number of petals for each kind. Older children might want to record the type of flower and number of petals in a notebook. Relate the flower shape to what kind of pollinators visit the plant, using Flowers Are Calling or a similar book as a reference.

Extension:  Press flowers and organize them by number of petals. What patterns do you see?

Activity 2:  Design a novel flower

Using colored pencils or crayons, design a new type of flower. Remember that flowers attract pollinators and produce seeds, so be sure to incorporate the parts of the flower shown below.


(“Mature flower diagram” by Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats. Public Domain image at Wikimedia Commons.)

Flower color activities

Whether or not a pollinator is attracted to a specific flower can depend on what color it is. For example bees don’t see red, but birds do. Red flowers are often pollinated by birds.

Activity 3: Changing flower color with food dye

We humans like brightly-colored flowers. In fact, florists may dye white or pale flowers like roses, daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, or carnations to make them more attractive.

This video shows how:

If your flowers don’t change color, the xylem may have been blocked when the stem dried out. Try cutting off the stem to create new openings to the xylem.

Activity 4. Changing flower color with chemistry

Some flowers have pigments that are sensitive to changes in pH.


  • Fresh red, blue or purple flowers (deep purple petunias work really well)
  • Jar with a lid big enough to hold a few flowers
  • Twist ties, string or yarn to suspend the flowers
  • Household ammonia
  • Vinegar and a bowl (optional)

Caution:  Ammonia is pretty strong, so this activity will require help and supervision from an adult. Be sure to follow all safety instructions on the product label. Do not mix the ammonia and vinegar together.

Have an adult pour about 1/2-inch ammonia into the bottom of the jar. Wrap a twist tie or tie yarn around the stems of a few flowers, enough that will fit comfortably into the jar. Suspend the flowers upside-down into the jar so that they are close to, but not touching the ammonia. Wrap the yarn or twist tie over the lip of the jar to keep the flowers suspended. Put the lid on the jar as tightly as possible. Leave the flowers in the jar about 15 minutes and then check to see if there are any changes.

Once the flowers have changed color nicely in the ammonia (which is a base) then try to change the color back by removing the flowers from the jar (without touching the ammonia) and dipping them in a bowl of vinegar, which is an acid.

Expected results:  Purple petunias will probably turn bright blue-green or teal in the ammonia, and then back to purple in the vinegar. You can actually dip the flowers into the vinegar because it won’t bleach. If you dip the flowers into the ammonia, however, it may bleach or discolor them, which is why they need to be suspended in the ammonia fumes in the jar instead.

Flower pigment chromatography

Another way to explore the pigments in flower petals is to separate them via chromatography. Scientific American has instructions for using chromatography to investigate flower petal color.


Our featured book, Flowers Are Calling, has been nominated for a 2015 Cybils award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category.

Age Range: 4 – 7 years
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (March 3, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0544340124
ISBN-13: 978-0544340121

Disclosures: This book was provided by my local library. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.



To see our complete plant science lessons, either visit the plant science category (newest posts to oldest posts) or the plant science section of our experiment archive page (links to posts in order).

Looking for books about plants for children? Be sure to visit our growing list of gardening and plant science books for kids, as well as our list of children’s books about seeds.

For more activities, try our Gardening/Plant Science for Kids Pinterest board.

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