Riverside Rearing

Sarah Marie Himes MRWA Assistant

Preface: I would like to give a special thanks to my scientist friends, Meteorologist Madison Ryke and Meteorologist Austin Lowe for educating me about the chemistry behind fall colors and extracting leaf pigment through their STEM experiments.

Fall’ing in Love with Color

In our household, fall is the favorite season. It’s a whimsical time of year, and the best months to explore some of nature’s brightest and boldest colors. Plus, it provides an ideal moment to teach a young child about science and art.


First of all, let’s talk about why leaves on the trees change colors and the source of their colors .

This natural, seasonal cycle is a result of chlorophyll chemistry. Chlorophyll is what gives many leaves their green colors during the spring and summer months. During the fall, chlorophyll (klaw-RUH-fill) breaks down into other chemicals as a result of cooler temps, less sunlight and rain amounts. These pigments include xanthophyll (zan-THO-fill) = yellow leaves, carotene (keh-RUH-teen) = orange leaves and anthocyanin (an-THOW-sai-A-nun) = red leaves.

Obviously, for our tiny scientists, these are pretty big words to learn and pronounce, but with the assistance of art – they will be able to identify the sound and look of the word with the color.


Right now, the tree canopies in the upper Muskegon River Watershed are booming with vibrant reds, oranges and yellows while trees in the lower section are quickly catching up – making it the ideal spot for color hunting. But, of course, you can do these activities where ever you see a tree.

Matching Colors

If your child is just beginning to learn about colors, focus on these four: green, red, yellow and orange.

With your help, go with them outside and ask them to find leaves on the ground that match those colors. Every time they find one, ask your child to state what the color is. After collecting each of the leaf colors listed above, have them compare it to items found inside and outside of the house.

If your child is already well versed in colors, have them search for leaves identifying the type of color changing chemical it contains: anthocyanin, carotene, xanthophyll and chlorophyll.

Now, let’s take it one step further… try tie-dying with the leaves your child has found!

Tie-dye Experiment: Extracting Leaf Pigment

Items you will need:

  • 5 – red leaves
  • 5 – orange leaves
  • 5 – yellow leaves
  • 5 – green leaves
  • 1 – 28”x28” Tea Towel (pre-washed with white vinegar, dampen with water)
  • 1 – Cup of White Vinegar
  • 4 – Cups of Hot Water (Parents Needed)
  • Rubber Bands or Twine
  • Large Bowl

Step 01

Lay the damp, prewashed tea towel flat on a table.  Have your child arrange the leaves the  found in any order they would like. My daughter arranged them by color and type.

Step 02

Tightly roll the tea towel around the leaves, and secure with rubber bands or twine. The tighter, the better – it should look like a cinnamon bun.

Step 03 (Parents Needed)

Place tea towel roll into a bowl. Pour hot water over the tea towel so that it is completely covered. Wait 5-minutes. Then, pour white vinegar directly over towel roll. Let it soak for at least 1 hour.

Step 04

After an hour the water should be a different tint. If your child used red leaves, the water should look like a light purple. Remove towel from water and squeeze the excess water out. Unroll the towel for the grand reveal!

Lay towel flat to dry.

You can repeat the above process as much as you’d like. New leaves are required each time.