food / life science / Plants / Traditions

Holiday Plants II

In a previous post you and your child were invited to search for, identify and explore evergreen plants included in holiday decorations. Many holiday traditions include other plant-based products. So let the treasure hunt continue! Can your child see, smell, taste, or feel other organic components in holiday-related activities?


Decorations for trees, wreaths, and garlands can include popcorn, cranberries, and other plant-based food items (dried citrus fruit slices). What can your child find when looking closely?


Look for the variety of nuts that show up in the grocery store in the late fall, so many a Nutcracker Prince would be inspired. Nuts are used creatively in decorations, they appear in menu items, and for young children they are readily explored and provide great sensory experiences.


Our taste buds are also treated to wonderful and novel flavors; those nuts and other flavors that are plant based. Think peppermint, chocolate, marzipan, and plum puddings. Our holiday recipes call for a variety of spices, again organic and plant related. The smell of cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg, star anise, and of course ginger (gingerbread people and houses), all conjure memories of meals shared with family or special holiday treats.


Finally, the holidays are often associated with specific scents. Those evergreens smell terrific. But more closely associated with the season may be the smell of spices in mulled wine or gluhwein (at least for me!), eggnog, and traditional cookies. These smells tantalize our noses (and may also result in growling tummies). Consider the number of holiday-based potpourri combinations or commercial air fresheners that tap the close links between smells and memories.


For more information on how to use the following information on exploring holiday plants please read the “What is Guiding Curiosity” page.



A good start is just recognizing the plant-based items that are common in decorations or foods this time of year.


Start with, “Can you see, smell or taste something that was once part of a plant?” You don’t necessarily have to identify what the plant is, just start with asking your child to identify the sensation (what it looks or smells like). These discussions can be extended by asking follow-up questions such as, what does it remind you of, what was happening last time you saw, smelled, or tasted that? How can you describe it? Eventually, you can provide or search for the proper label. Remember, do not help to identify the smell, taste, or item too quickly. Let your child consider his experience in his own words first.


Where does the ginger in gingerbread come from?


Where does peppermint in a candy cane come from?


What kind of nut is that and where does it come from?


Where does chocolate come from or how is it made (roasting cocoa beans is a start)?





There is so much to look at during the holidays, but zero in on cool things from nature.


Can you find seeds? All those nuts we consume this time of year are fruits made up of a hard shell and a seed. If you can buy an assortment of nuts in the shells, your child can observe the shell then open them up and observe the interior. Observing in this case also includes tasting!



Your spice cabinet is a treasure trove of items to be explored. Ask your child to wash her hands. Introduce spices one or two at a time so as not to overwhelm. Examine cloves, whole or ground allspice, whole or ground nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, ground ginger, and vanilla beans with a hand lens. My favorite is star anise, which in the spirit of the holidays looks like a star!


Smell and taste these, describing sensations on the tongue, or how those spices might be used in cooking. That is, what recipes would they taste good in and why? If you do not have whole versions of these spices, you may be able to purchase small quantities at grocery stores or co-ops that sell herbs and spices by the ounce rather than in jars. Even if you do not have the whole versions, smelling and tasting the ground versions, and describing those experiences is a great introduction.



Purchase fresh ginger or if you have some at home, let your child take a look with and without a hand lens. Remove the skin or slice it so the interior can be examined as well. Allow your child to problem-solve the best way to remove the skin. What tool might work? What is it (a root)? Taste and smell pieces of the peeled ginger and describe those experiences.




Comparing is natural and promotes learning.


If you purchased a variety of nuts in the shell, examine the outsides and insides, comparing and contrasting the different varieties. Invite your child to problem solve how best to open those nuts. Once open, what are the similarities or differences between the interiors and exteriors? Draw pictures or figure out a way to keep a chart that captures those similarities or differences.


Compare those nuts or spices to other seeds, such as from an apple, orange or melon.


Some research is in order, but look up where those spices come from, what they look like on the plant or what part of the plant they come from. Make predictions about where they come from. You may want to find growing areas on a map of the globe, drawing or coloring regions where those spices come from. Compare and contrast those ecosystems in terms of tropical, desert, or mountainous growing environments. This would be another good opportunity to paste pictures onto index cards and write information about those spices that your child finds interesting. Spices are a terrific introduction to plants because they are readily available, interesting to observe (smell and look noteworthy in their whole forms), and we can consume them.


Compare different forms of ginger, or ground, fresh, and crystallized. Invite your child to identify the differences in what they look, feel, taste and smell like.



Compare different forms of peppermint, or fresh (mint is an okay substitute), liquid extracts, and in candy.


Compare white and dark chocolate. Explore how they are created. One has significantly more cocoa than the other. How can you tell?



Don’t take a vacation from learning during the holidays, keep those math skills sharp with counting and measuring.


Count numbers of cloves, allspice, chilies, etc. in a jar. Count nuts.


Weigh nuts and spices. On a balance scale consider comparing a tablespoon of allspice to a tablespoon of ground cloves or another spice. Do they weight the same? Measure a tablespoon of ground cloves versus whole cloves (or allspice, nutmeg). Which weighs more?


Examine recipes for amounts of spice used. What does a ¼ of a teaspoon look like?




Remember the best experiments or those that will be most meaningful to your child, are self-initiated. Having said that, here are a few suggestions you can use as the basis of hints.


Include your child in cooking and baking. This can be a terrific shared experience, assuming you do not have to produce huge quantities and you not are stressed. Cooking with children is great because there are a number of concepts nicely tied to chemistry, such as phase changes (liquids to solids when temperatures are changed). Experimenting is about changing or altering something, which cooking clearly does in most instances. Ask your child to make predictions, or what will happen when? Invite problem-solving, or how far apart should the cookies be on the baking sheet? What if they expand? How much batter should we put in the muffin tins?



Grind (with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder) whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, allspice or nutmeg, describing what the spice looks and smells like before and after.



Create paints with ground versions of these spices. Take a tablespoon or two of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, or allspice and add a little water, or mix with glue or yogurt. Paint away, creating art that will smell as wonderful as it looks! Though not closely linked to the holiday, you may want to include some turmeric or paprika, or an alternative color as the holiday spices will primarily result in shades of brown.



Find stories with references to spices or plants with a holiday theme.


What animals like those nuts you have been examining? What critters would love to help in setting up those holiday decorations that include nuts?


Indulge in a special White Chocolate Drink. Warm milk in a pot (2 cups) with a cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean split in half. Add some white chocolate, either in bar form or chips. This is to taste, but about 3 – 4 ounces of the chocolate should be plenty. Pour and enjoy!











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