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The study of herbology dates from the time that people began learning what was good to eat, and not so good to eat. Wise people also took note of the different effects different plants had on them, and from this, the early study of herbal medicine began.

Plant Food Experiments

Carnivorous Plant Research

The living world can be divided into some basic feeding categories: herbivore (plant eaters), carnivores (animal eaters) and omnivores (can eat either plants or animals). While some animals are herbivores, some plants are carnivores.

You have probably heard about the Venus flytrap. There are other plants that use bright colour or scent (or both) to lure their prey into watery or sticky parts where they drown or get stuck and are digested by the plant. Try doing a web search to see how many you can find.

Links to Other Interesting Plants to Research:

Colourful Capillaries

coloured carnations capillary action

You will need:
several white carnations and/or long stalks of celery
liquid food colouring, at least two different contrasting colours
thin vases or bottles
an exacto knife (for adult use)

Add several drops of food colouring and an equal amount of water to one bottle. Trim 1 cm off the bottom of your celery or carnation stem and place it in the bottle. Let it sit for about an hour, then come back and take a look at it. Now place it in a bottle of plain water for an hour or so. What happens?

Now try splitting the stem up the middle from the bottom (this can be a bit of a challenge, and is definitely a job for an adult). Make the slit long enough that each stem can reach the bottom of separate bottles. Add equal amounts of food colouring and water to one bottle, and a contrasting colour to the other. Let it sit for an hour.

Try doing one colour, then a different one afterwards. What happens?

Many animals distribute nutrients through their bodies by pumping it through their arteries using their heart. Plants use capilliary action, absorbing moisture and nutrients from the soil, to accomplish a similar job. Adding colour allows you to see this process for yourself.

Herbal Spa

Floral Soaps

You will need:
a bar of white or transparent soap
small dried wildflowers or floral herbs (lavender and chamomile work well) you may wish to press them flat in a heavy book to make them easier to work with
either melted paraffin wax, or clear acrylic varnish
a paintbrush

First, arrange your flowers on top of the soap in the way you want them to appear. If you are using wax to set them, you may want to brush on a small amount to help hold them in place. Once they are arranged the way you like, press down on them to make them as flat as possible. Now brush on the wax or varnish, and let dry. Once dry, repeat with a second coat, and then a third if necessary.

Herbal Bath Salts

You will need:
1 cup of Epsom salts
1 cup of baking soda
1/4 cup of crushed dried herbs (choose from lavender, chamomile, thyme, rosemary, mint, dried rose petals and/or dried citrus peel)

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, and then decant three or four equal portions into an airtight jar. If you wish, divide the mixture into parts and add a drop or two of food colouring and layer the salts in the jar.

Magical Tea

You will need:
an assortment of dry herbs (some suggestions: lemon grass, chamomile, rose hips or petals, mint, fennel seed)
a tea ball
optional: green or white tea leaves
optional: small cinnamon stick pieces, dried citrus peel, dried berry pieces
small containers and spoons for the different herbs
small containers to hold your finished tea

This activity encourages you to use your sense of smell and taste. Use the spoons to fill your tea containers with your own herbal tea creations. To serve, fill the tea ball, then prepare as you would your favourite commercial tea. Make notes so you can repeat your favourite recipes. If you wish, you can use slightly less tea, and make it without the tea ball, then try and read your fortune in the tea leaves left at the bottom of your cup.

Seeds of Change

Saving your Seeds

This is a good activity to do whenever a flower, fruit or vegetable is ready to be harvested from your garden. For best results, try and use seeds from non-hybrid plants.

To harvest marigold seeds, wait until the flower is dried out. You will see a long tuft where the middle of the flower was (sometimes this becomes a bit like a pod). Gently pry it open and you will find the seeds inside. Store in a paper envelope in a cool, dry place until the next spring. Be sure to label the envelope!

To collect tomato seeds, let a piece of tomato that has seeds sit on an open container in the refrigerator for a week or so. Doing this allows the tomato to dry out, and the bacteria to cause the seeds to build up their defenses, making them stronger and hardier. Once the tomato is dried up, separate the seeds from the rest of the tomato and store them in a paper envelope in a cool, dry place until the following spring. This works for non-hybrid varieties only.

Collecting seeds from peppers, squash, cucumbers and melons: First, you should know that these varieties can be a little trickier, especially if there are several different types growing nearby that may have cross-pollinated. If you are uncertain, you can either take your chances and try anyway, or refer to the links below for detailed instructions about hand-pollinating. Next, remove the seeds from the fruit (yes, these are all fruits!), and let air dry for a couple of days. Store in a paper envelope in a cool dry place until the following spring.

For more information about saving seeds, try these excellent resources:

Seed Mosaics

You will need:
a variety of seeds and dried beans--choose those with contrasting sizes, shapes and colours
white craft/school glue
heavy paper
a pencil

Collect seeds and dried beans of a variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Using your pencil, trace out the outlines of a picture or design you would like to make. You may want to look at some tile mosaic pictures either online or from books from your local library for inspiration. I particularly like the ones from Morocco myself.

Once you have drawn your plan, you may wish to label it like a paint-by-number canvass so that you can easily remember what seeds go where when you are gluing them.

To glue, you can spread a small amount of glue in one section, then press the seeds into it and let them dry. Continue until the picture is done. If you are using larger seeds, you can dab a bit of glue right onto them, then stick them down. Tiny seeds (like poppy seeds) can be lightly sprinkled onto the glue. Let the paper dry flat, then tilt is up gently over a bowl or sink so that any loose piece can be collected.

An alternate activity is to use a clear glass jar and fill it with layers of contrasting seeds and beans. You could even make a bean soup mix this way.

Egg Carton Seedlings

You will need:
an egg carton for each participant
pencil or skewer
potting soil
seeds you have saved or purchased--the faster germinating varieties work best
a small spoon or scoop
small spouted cup of water

This activity is adapted from a similar one at Simple Kids.

  1. Soak the seeds in water.
  2. Cut the top off of the carton and keep it. This will be your drainage tray.
  3. Poke a small hole in the bottom of each cup using the pencil or skewer.
  4. Fill each cup about 1/2 way full of potting soil.
  5. Place a single seed in the centre of the soil, then add soil to cover it. It might be tempting to put more than one seed in a cup, but that will overcrowd your seedlings.
  6. Place the planted egg cups onto the inverted lid of the egg carton to catch any excess water.
  7. Gently water the seeds now, then repeat each day, keeping the soil moist but not saturated.
  8. As soon as the first leaf-like parts show and the seed casing has fallen off, you can begin to harden these off for outdoor growing by placing them outside. Do this for a few hours on the first day, increasing in time until they are ready for transplanting.
  9. Once the seeds have sprouted, wait until the first set of proper leaves have formed (these will be the second ones), then you can transplant them to the garden or a larger container.
  10. Transplant the seedlings to your garden:
    • Prepare a spot to plant your seedlings by digging a small hole for each.
    • Carefully grasp the stem near the soil and gently wiggle and tug until the seedling comes out.
    • Place the seedling in the hole, then press the surrounding soil in around it to make it snug. Water promptly.

Seeds that work well in this activity are beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe, and most herbs. Be sure to choose something you will enjoy eating, or try flowers (marigolds work well) instead. It is important that the seedlings be transplanted as soon as possible.

Watching the Roots

You will need:
a small clear glass jar
several uncooked dried beans
paper towelling or sponge that will fit snugly in the jar

  1. Soak your beans in water for 5 minutes to an hour to help soften them.
  2. If you are using paper towelling, make a tube of it that will fit snugly inside your jar.
  3. Wet your paper towel or sponge, then place it in the jar.
  4. Slide your seed between the side of the jar and the paper towel or sponge so that it sits about half-way up. Press the paper towel/sponge against the side of the jar around the bean to "seal" it in place. Repeat with another bean on the other side of the jar if desired.
  5. Be sure to keep it moist and check on your beans at least once a day.
This experiment can also be done using soil instead of the paper towel or sponge, and planting the beans right against the outside glass of the jar. Soil is messier to work with but adds better contrast for watching root growth.

A-Mazing Phototropic Star Finders

You will need:
a small potted vine plant, such as ivy, peas, beans, squash, etc.
a cardboard box in which the plant fits within 1/4 of the inside space, with either a separate lid, or flaps on the top that can be closed
some extra cardboard pieces
packing, masking or duct tape
an adult with an exacto knife

Sit your plant in one corner of the box. Now, using the cardboard, make a wall next to it that reaches about 3/4 of the way to the other side of the box. This wall should be the same height as the box. Tape this securely in place.

Have your adult make a hole in the corner on the other side of the wall from the plant (the furthest corner going around the wall). It should be about 6-10 cm around. Now water the plant if needed, then place the lid on the box (or close it). Be sure to put the box in a bright room. Leave the lid on most of the day, removing it mainly to check and water it, or if it starts to die. What happens to it?

When plants grow towards the direction of the sun (or the strongest available light source), it is called phototropism. In what other ways do plants respond to light?

Plant a Fort

First you need to decide what type of fort you will build.

For a teepee-style vine fort, you will need:
6-12 wooden stakes that are at least as tall as the tallest person who will enter the fort
large twist-ties (found in a garden centre or seasonally at a dollar store)
string or garden twine
seeds or seedlings that will grow into vines, such as beans, summer squash, grapes or clematis
a partner to help you
as always, parental permission to do the project

Begin by twisting wire around the tops of three stakes to fasten them together. You now have a tripod. Set this down in the position you wish to have your fort, spreading the stakes enough so that the fort is as wide and as tall as you wish it to be. Add stakes and wire them onto the first three until you have a strong and sturdy skeleton for your fort. Don't forget to leave an opening for the door! You may wish to reinforce the sides and bottom by tying string or twine around each stake and around the fort about half-way down, and again at the base.

Now you are ready to plant your fort. At the base of each stake, plant 2 or 3 seeds or seedlings. Every couple of days, check to see they are watered, and help them grow up the stakes by gently wrapping and/or tying the stalks around the stakes as needed.

For a sunflower fort, you will need:
wooden garden stakes
string or garden twine
sunflower seeds

First, use the garden stakes to outline where your walls will be. Plant your seeds along the stakes according to the package instructions. Be sure to leave a space for a door, and remember that sunflowers require a great deal of sunlight to grow when you choose your fort area.

The sunflowers will take one to two weeks to grow enough for you to see where your walls will be. If there are spaces you do not want, plant some seeds in those spaces now.

Water the plants every few days, and add garden stakes if necessary to give them added support.

Variation: instead of growing sunflowers, try this with corn the way corn mazes are made.

Nature's Garden: "Let it Be"

Have you ever gone for a walk in an area that has gone completely natural? There are plants and animals of great variety, and every bit of space has something growing on it. Nature is a very practiced gardener! You can even see this in empty building lots as first the sun-loving "weeds" that are tolerant of poor soil and exposure take hold, followed by shrubs, trees and increasing wildlife.

In this experiment, you get to watch that process happen up close.

You will need:
a small patch of your property, at least 18" x 18" in size
parental permission
a means for marking off the area (small stakes or garden fencing, a rock or pebble border, etc.)
a camera or sketchbook to record your observations

  1. Decide with your parents where your "Let it Be" garden will go.
  2. You may decide to clear it of all vegetation, or simply just let it go as it is and see what happens.
  3. Mark off the area and be sure all family members understand that no weeding, mowing, fertilizing etc. is to happen there.
  4. Make observations and recordings of wildlife, plant growth etc. throughout the season.
  5. Compare plant growth in this section with plant growth in other areas of your yard and neighbourhood. What is different?
We did this and ended up with some very fast-growing trees, including several red maples, a beech and chestnut tree. They outgrew the human-planted trees by a surprising amount!