Roots: Hidden Gems to Discover
Roots are part of the amazing complexity of plants. Have you ever thought about how in the world do they take nutrients from the soil and send them up to the rest of the plant? Did you know that the leaves send nutrients back down to the roots by way of the stem? Amazing!
We are going to learn about that in this botany lesson. Your kids are going to become the best scientific observers ever! And if you are anything like me, you will be excited to learn about roots too. Technically, this is not a science experiment, but an important observation recording that will stay with your kids for a lifetime. Let’s go!
It’s time for a trip to the grocery store!
Prepare for the trip
Be sure to take your kids with you if at all possible. I know that can be a challenge but make an exception this time and take them! If your kids aren’t used to shopping, try to prepare them by pretending to go shopping in your own homemade grocery store at home.
Teach Behavior at Home First
Think about how you want the trip to go (hint: read this article first) and be prepared to teach behavior that you want before you go. That way, when you herd them in from running around or yelling in the store, they can fall back on the pretending you already did at home.
I used to bribe mine with a cookie if they behaved and were rewarded after the trip through the store was complete. It didn’t always work, but it sure did help. Nowadays, many stores offer one free piece of fruit to the kids, located in the produce section.
Explore and Discover Roots Inside the Grocery Store
Observe Roots in The Produce Section
Head for the produce department. Look for roots, lots of roots. Start a guessing game and see if they can spot other roots after you show them one or two root vegetables.
While you are there, here are some questions you can ask your child.
Look at a carrot. Find the carrots. Does a carrot look like a parsnip? I wonder if they taste the same? What do you think?
Did you know that carrots and parsnips grow underground? They are actually the roots of the plant.
Now look for a beet, turnip, and rutabaga.
These are all root vegetables. How are they alike? How are they different? Since they are roots too, they grow in the dirt too.
Look for a chunk of fresh ginger root. Does it look like a carrot? It’s a root too! This is where we get the flavor for gingerbread cookies.
Point out that these are all roots even though they look different.
Potatoes: Not roots, but they sure fooled me!
Find the potatoes. In what ways do a red potato and a sweet potato look the same?
How are they different?
Potatoes are actually NOT a root, they are called tubers. But some people call them roots. We will talk about potatoes in our next lesson when we study stems. For now, it’s good to know that they grow underground, under the potato plant. Like roots, they grow under the plant-in the dirt.
Buy Your Supplies
Now, put these items in your basket for the experiments you will be doing over the next few days
- Carrots (with tops attached if possible)
- One sweet potato
- Red food coloring (the liquid kind is best)
You will also need the following, but you probably have them already:
- One narrow jar
Do you have a garden? You may find some of these veggies in your garden. Feel free to use the veggies from there.
No garden? I hope you will start one soon. Any size is a good start. Try a few pots on a patio or a raised bed or two. Your kids will learn so much from a garden. It’s a great family activity.
Prepare for the next botany lesson about stems now.
To get a jump start on the lesson about stems, purchase a white or baking potato now. Look for one with eyes already starting. If you can’t find one, you’ll need to find an organic one because many of the ones you see in today’s stores have been treated to not sprout-and you definitely will want sprouts:)
Here’s the grocery list for the lesson about stems:
- Fresh broccoli
- Fresh asparagus
- Fresh strawberries
Home Activities and Observations About Roots
The steps are easy. But, PRINT OUT YOUR FREE WORKSHEET FIRST. It’s kid-friendly. Remember to subscribe to get the worksheet.
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Identify Parts of the Carrot First
Look closely at the carrot. Can you find baby rootlets coming out the sides of the carrot? The carrot is the main root. The stem is right above the carrot, in a tight ring. If your carrot has the green top, you can see the stem at the base of the green tops. The green tops are the leaves of the carrot.
Discover the Purpose of Roots
Now it’s time for your science observation. You will need:
- A raw carrot
- A glass or jar
- Red food coloring
- Glass jar or drinking glass (glass is best so it won’t be dyed)
Instructions for Your Root Observation
- Read these instructions through to the end first so you will know how many of each item you will need before you begin-just in case you need to make a quick run to the store. Maybe a neighbor will be happy to share something that you don’t have already.
- Mix 4 tablespoons of food coloring with 4 tablespoons of water in a glass jar (see step 4)
- Cut off the bottom of the carrot, about one inch from the bottom
- Put the carrot, cut side down into the red water (It should have 3-4 inches in the dye.)
- Wait one to two hours
- Remove the carrot from the red water and rinse the dye off the bottom. DO NOT THROW THE RED DYE OUT. (You will need it to continue this observation and for the next lesson on stems.)
- Cut off the bottom about ½ inch from the bottom that you cut off before.
New Words to Learn
The center of the carrot is stained red. This part of the vein is called the “xylem”. It takes water upward to the rest of the plant. The xylem can also take nutrients that are dissolved in the water to the parts of the plants that it is also sending water.
Look at the cut end again, very closely. Find the other part of the veins. They won’t be stained and it will look like a light orange ring around the stained center. Try using a magnifying glass to help you see them. Those veins carry water up AND down the root. Huh? How does it do that? That part of the root is called the “phloem”. I remember that word because it sounds like “flow”, which reminds me of water running.
Further Root Exploration
- Put the carrot back into the dye water.
- Wait for at least 6 hours, or longer. (Overnight is best.)
- Now, cut the carrot in half the long way, from bottom to top.
Class time: Observe and Record What You Discovered
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See if you can trace the phloem from the bottom to the top. If there were any roots left on the carrot, you may be able to see the dye went to the roots too. If your carrot had the tops left on, you may be able to see the red dye in the leaves too.
This group of veins is the phloem that we talked about. It takes longer for those veins to become dyed because, remember, the phloem takes water up AND down. It’s like a two way street. The leaves make food for the plant, using sunlight, air, and the water from the xylem. The phloem routes the food through the tubes to the root. The root stores the food. The carrot is all that food that has been stored. That’s why it’s so nutritious. The plant made the food, the root stored it.
Nutrition is Stored for a Reason
Nutrition is stored in the root of the carrot plant. We eat the part that has the nutrition stored (the carrot). But, there’s another reason the plant stores food. It needs food to make more carrots! If a carrot plant is left in the ground, it will eventually make new seeds. It will use the food from the carrot root. The phloem will carry the food to the seed head. It takes a long time for a carrot to make new seeds. Two years! But, no worries, the carrot has stored plenty of food for the new seeds. Then there can be new carrot plants!
What an amazing design that God made for us to be nourished by a carrot!
God is good.
Xylem in Trees
Have you ever seen the rings of a tree that has been cut down? They look like the carrot xylem.
Yes, indeed. The rings are the xylem for that year. The next year, the tree forms new xylem. The old xylem becomes hard and we know that whole process that continues to harden, layer after layer, year after year, as “wood”.
Tree trunks, the part we call wood when it gets cut, is not a root. It’s a stem! But, we’ll get to that in another lesson.
How to Grow a Sweet Potato
Suspend the potato
Now it’s time for the sweet potato. You can watch how a root can grow new plants. Potatoes aren’t technically roots (they are tubers) but they function the same. You can prop the sweet potato up in a jar. I like to make a tri-pod from toothpicks and suspend the potato on the top of the jar. The end with a large scar should be up, the end with a smaller scar, smaller end, should be down. Fill the far with water. Place in a sunny window or outside where it can get sunlight at least part of the day.
Wait a Few Weeks
You will be watching for roots to grow first. It may be as long as three weeks before you see roots begin to grow. Freshen the water every few days. As the roots become numerous, it’s easier to just pour the water out without removing the potato. You will see little stems and leaves begin growing from the top. When they are at least 6 inches long, you can take them off and put them in water so they can form roots too.
Plant Your Sweet Potato Vines
Once they have roots that are a few inches long, plant your new sweet potato vine. Be sure to put all the roots into loose soil and the leaves need to be above the dirt. You could also just leave the vines on the sweet potato for a nice vine plant for your home. Place it in the sunshine so the leaves can make new food that it can use as it grows.
This could start a whole journey of discovery about how your food grows. Extend this experiment by planting some carrot seeds in a pot of container soil.
- Barely cover the tiny carrot seeds with soil. You may want to have a 2-3 inch layer of seed starting soil on top of the container garden soil to ensure that they don’t get buried too deep.
- Water as soon as the top dirt dries out (every day!).
- When they are 2-3 inches tall, they will need room to grow. They need 1 inch between them at this point. Do not try to move them. Carefully snip off some of the plants so they are spaced 1 inch apart from each other.
- Draw pictures of what the plants look like as they grow.
- When the carrot tops are about 8 inches tall, they will need 2 inches between them to continue growing bigger. So, gently pull the extra ones out. You should have young carrots to enjoy.
- Carrots take about 5 months to be fully mature. Pull them at that time and enjoy them.
Carrots will become “woody” if you wait too long to pull them. Remember the xylem? It will become like wood as it continues to grow. Carrots will not make seeds until the following year, so unless you want seeds, it’s a good idea to pull them when they are ready to eat! But, if you are really ambitious and promise to not forget the carrot plant, leave it in the dirt, water it when it needs water, and see if you can harvest carrot seeds next year.
If you planted the seeds, I hope it develops a yearning to grow more veggies. Everyone can grow at least part of their food, even with limited space. This is food that not only nourishes your body but is good for your soul. When you work in a garden, hands in the dirt, it builds a healthy person in many ways.
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Lots of love,
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. – Mat 6:33 CSB