Have you ever wondered what makes leaves change colors in the fall? How do the leaves suddenly change from green to yellow or red? Where did those colors come from? Well, wonder no more–today we will find those colors!


White vinegar

Clear containers

Fall leaves (Choose some from a few different trees, and try to choose leaves that have recently fallen so they are not too brittle.)

Coffee filter

Plastic wrap

Mortar and pestle (optional)



1. Start by going outside! (Isn’t that a great way to start a science experiment?) You will need to collect leaves. It is okay if you find green leaves–the theory is that you will be able to predict what color the leaves will turn. If your leaves have already started changing, that is okay, you can still do this experiment.
2. We chose six different leaves. A couple of them were from our one big tree, and others were collected where they had fallen or blown over the fence from our neighbor’s yard.

3. Sort out your leaves and label them so you will know which is which as you follow your leaf through the experiment.

4. Once your leaves are sorted and labeled, you will want to cut or tear them up. Add these pieces to your mortar. (NOTE: If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, just add the pieces to your clear containers, add some vinegar, and skip to step #8.)
5. Once the leaves are in the mortar, have fun squishing them with the pestle!
6. After you have squished your leaves a little bit, add the vinegar and continue to squish. The amount of vinegar isn’t too important; just make sure you have enough to cover the leaves. We used a plastic scoop and put the same amount of vinegar in each container of leaves.
7. Once they are squished, add your leaf pieces to your clear containers. (NOTE: If you are using more than one leaf, you should rinse the mortar between each leaf.)
8. Make sure you transfer the numbers to the containers so you know which leaf is in which container. We used post-it notes to mark the leaves so it was very simple to mark the containers as well.

9. Cover the containers with plastic. The leaf bits will be sitting in the vinegar and the vinegar will be fairly clear (although if your children were enthusiastic squishing the leaves, you may already see some coloring in the vinegar)

10. Set the covered containers aside and allow them to sit for at least an hour. You may occasionally swirl the leaves inside of the containers if you happen to walk by, but it’s not a requirement.

11. After an hour, check on your containers. Go ahead and give them a swirl just to mix it up a bit. At this point, you should be seeing some coloring of the vinegar. Depending on the dryness of your leaves, you may see very little coloring.
(NOTE: The original experiment called for rubbing alcohol–since we altered that to use vinegar (because I didn’t have rubbing alcohol) we let our leaves sit overnight in their clear containers. I used a shelf in the kitchen that was a bit out of the way so that they were not bothered.)
12. Allow the containers to sit overnight.
13. Remove the plastic wrap, making sure you keep your labels nearby so you know which leaf is which.
14. Cut your coffee filters so that you have enough strips to fit one in each of your clear containers.
15. Place one end of each strip into each clear container.

16. Wait 30 minutes to allow the coffee filters to soak up the vinegar.
17. Remove the strips from the containers and observe. During the 30 minutes, the liquid in the containers has traveled up the coffee filter. Because the vinegar is clear, the colors that have leached from the leaves will have migrated into the coffee filter and you will see these are lines on the paper. Some colors will not be apparent immediately–allow the coffee filters to dry and the colors will be easier to see.


Leaf #6 – Colors Within

Chromo-9Chromo-8From these strips, we can try to predict which colors the leaves will turn in the fall. Although it is not easy to see in the pictures, some of the strips have very obvious streaks of yellow and tints of orange while still showing some green.

At this point, you can go on to teach the kids about how leaves use sunlight throughout the warm summer months to manufacture chlorophyll while hiding their fall colors within. If we do this experiment in the summer, do you think you can predict what color a certain tree will turn when fall comes? With older students, have them research the parts of a leaf and how chlorophyll works to feed tree, while the younger ones will enjoy the process and can identify colors. You can also do leaf rubbings to add an artistic element. The coffee filters, along with rubbings and pictures of the leaves, can then be assembled into a nice report to keep as part of your child’s record of learning.


This is also a great time to take a nature walk and look at the beautiful colors. Point out to the children, that even though we couldn’t see the colors during the summer they were there all along. Just as God has beautiful things inside of everyone, no matter that we look like on the outside, there is always something on the inside. God put something inside each of them, whether they know what it is yet or not. Even once leaves turn brown and fall to the ground, this is just God’s way of allowing the tree to rest for a season before beginning the cycle again in the spring.

Enjoy your beautiful fall colors and be sure to be on the lookout for the beauty within.

NOTE: I used one of Bug’s leaves (#6) as the example in the pictures. If you want to see all of the results, then head on over to Homeschooler on the Edge and read “Autumn Chromatography–the Whole Story.”

Michelle, a Virginia native, currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. Active in Scouts, area homeschool groups, and with her family, she can be found on her blog, “Homeschooler on the Edge,” as well as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.