Explore Leaf Color With a Fun Chromatography Experiment

Back to Blog ListingsBack

Explore Leaf Color With a Fun Chromatography Experiment

October 19, 2020

Share This
Share This

Fall is here!

Whether you are an artist or a scientist, here’s a great way to explore those fall colors.

The air is becoming chillier and our days are getting shorter. This means that the leaves on the trees will start preparing for winter.

During summer, the leaves on the trees are green. Leaves get their green color from chlorophyll, a substance inside them that makes photosynthesis possible.

The chemical process of photosynthesis is how plants make their food, and it enables them to absorb energy from the sun and use it to make sugars.

As summer turns to fall, chlorophyll begins to break down and photosynthesis no longer takes place. The leaves start changing color and falling to the ground. Now they are perfectly ready to be raked into piles perfect for jumping in!

But we have another fun activity you can do with leaves. And it’s super fun to do with leaves that are changing color!

Play with color!

By using something called chromatography, a scientific process for separating out items from a mixture, it’s possible to pull out those beautiful greens, yellows, red, and brown colors from leaves and showcase them! Are you ready?

The first step is to invite your family on a leaf hunt and collect leaves of different colors and varieties (collect at least two of each type). For best results, collect fresh leaves from bushes and trees instead of off the ground.

Do this experiment for yourself!

Start by gathering your materials. Most of these items you should be able to find around the house or at a nearby drug store.

Materials needed:

  • Leaves of different colors and varieties (at least two of each type)
  • A small glass or jar for each leaf type
  • Plastic wrap
  • Coffee filters
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Popsicle sticks, pencils, OR straws
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Large, shallow tin


Take a leaf, rip it into small pieces, and put it into a container.

Cover the leaves with a small amount of rubbing alcohol and cover the container with plastic wrap. Place a leaf of the same color and type onto the top of the container, this will help you keep track of which leaf is in each container.

Repeat this step with your remaining leaves.

Set each container in a tin with warm water, this will heat up the rubbing alcohol and help draw out the pigments from the leaves. Let the mixtures sit for at least 30 minutes.

For each container, cut a 1-inch thick strip of coffee filter paper a little taller than each jar or glass. Suspend a strip of filter paper into each container by taping it onto a popsicle stick, pencil, straw. The bottom of the paper should be touching the mixture.

Then watch the colors slowly move up the filter paper and separate!

Leaves sitting near tissue paper with color marks on it
Isn’t nature’s color palette beautiful?

How cool is that?

You can document your findings in your nature journal. (If you want to learn how to create one, we have a Recipe for that!)

Explore the results with different types of leaves. We love how nature creates its own type of art!

This program was developed by the Children’s Museum of South Dakota with grant funding through the South Dakota Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.