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Find the Hidden Colors of Leaves

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Active Time
30-45 minutes
Total Project Time
Up to 1 day
Key Concepts
plant pigments, paper chromatography, leaves
A pile of red, yellow and green leaves

Introduction

Have you ever wondered why leaves change from green to an amazing array of yellow, orange, and red during the fall? Leaves get their brilliant colors from pigments made up of various color-creating molecules. During the warm, sunny months, plants use their leaves to turn sunlight into food energy, a process called photosynthesis. This primarily uses a pigment that reflects green light, which gives the leaves their characteristic color. In autumn, when colder, shorter days arrive, many kinds of trees no longer make food energy with their leaves and, consequently, no longer need the green pigment. The leaves' other pigments, some of which were already there during summer, become visible. In this science activity, you will uncover these hidden colors by separating plant pigments with a process called paper chromatography. What colors will you see?

Credits

Teisha Rowland, PhD, Science Buddies
Svenja Lohner, PhD, Science Buddies
This activity is not appropriate for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Materials

  • Leaves at different stages of turning fall colors (the more the better — about 10 of each color, from the same tree, is best)
  • Scissors
  • Strong, white, heavyweight, ultra-absorbent paper towels or chromatography filter paper that can be purchased separately from our partner Home Science Tools. Note: Chromatography paper works much better than paper towels. If you use paper towels, make sure to use thick paper towels as these result in better color separation.
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Clothespins or large paper clips (3–4 for each group of leaves)
  • Toothpicks
  • Strong, sturdy, and heat resistant drinking glasses (one for each group of leaves)
  • Tall glass jars, such as mason jars (one for each group of leaves)
  • Wooden spoon or another wooden utensil with a blunt end for crushing leaves
  • Fork
  • Plate
  • Very small bowls or tea-light candle holders (one for each group of leaves)
  • Isopropyl rubbing alcohol, 90%
  • Measuring spoon, tablespoon
  • Stove
  • Tap water
  • Pot

Disclaimer: Science Buddies participates in affiliate programs with Home Science Tools, Amazon.com, Carolina Biological, and Jameco Electronics. Proceeds from the affiliate programs help support Science Buddies, a 501(c)(3) public charity, and keep our resources free for everyone. Our top priority is student learning. If you have any comments (positive or negative) related to purchases you've made for science projects from recommendations on our site, please let us know. Write to us at scibuddy@sciencebuddies.org.

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Active Time
30-45 minutes
Total Project Time
Up to 1 day
Key Concepts
plant pigments, paper chromatography, leaves
Free science fair projects.