(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 6, 2008)
If dyeing carnations with a child, the first thing to do is explain that flowers drink water to stay alive. The plant takes in water through it's roots and it travels up to the flower through tubes in it's stems. By coloring the water, we can see how it moves upward to the blooms.
The technical term for water moving out through the leaves and flowers is called transpiration, and if this is to be used for a fourth grade science project, it is important to know, but children as young as two or three will enjoy watching the colors change as the flower ‘drinks'. Dyeing carnations is a great way to introduce them to how plants work, and how important it is to make sure that they have enough moisture.
Here's a list of things that you will need.
A bunch of white carnations, easily found in the local supermarket. Make sure that the blooms are crisp and fresh. Older blossoms are on the down side of their lives, and they don't take in water as quickly, so the process takes more time, and the result isn't as pretty.
Food coloring in various shades. The liquid or paste type is fine. Paint will not work. Also, some colors will work better than others . For this project I used red, green and violet. The carnations took the red and green dye quickly, while the violet didn't have any effect on the blossoms. It is advised to use more than one color, just to make sure of successful results.
You will need scissors, glasses or jars, paper towels, and of course water. Make sure that you have a good workspace, enough room for the little ones to observe the process, and of course make sure that they can ‘help'. They will love dropping the color in the water, and there's not really any way they can get too much.
After the materials are assembled, the grown-up will have to do a bit of preparation before the dyeing process actually starts. Take the carnations and submerge the stems in water. Clip the stems about an inch or two up, and at an angle. This gives a good fresh opening for the dye to be taken in, and by doing it underwater, it prevents air bubbles from forming in the stems.
Fill the containers with at least a cup of cool water. Make sure that there is enough water so that all of the stems are submerged by at least a couple of inches. Now come the fun. The kids can drop the food coloring in the water to make the dye for the carnations. This is one time when more is better. Twenty or thirty drops is necessary, and more will not hurt. If using the paste type, half of a teaspoon will work fine. Stir until the paste coloring is dissolved.
Now, the child can place the carnation stems in the colored water. Care should be taken to make sure that each one is submerged by at least a couple of inches. Place the containers in an area where your child can check on them often, but where it won't be a disaster if a container is accidentally tipped over. White carpet and food coloring are two words that shouldn't be uttered in the same sentence.
Depending on the age of the flowers, temperature of the water and the room, or the concentration of the dye, results can be observed in as quick as thirty minutes, but sometimes takes several hours. This is not an exact science, and as they say in the automobile industry, "your mileage may vary." In twenty four hours, the carnations will be as colored as they are going to get. There will be streaks and veins in the flowers, and there will always be most of the white carnation visible.
If you like, arrange the different colored carnations in a vase and enjoy the mixture. Dyeing carnations is a fun project for kids, but you can also use them to spice up an arrangement when a little extra ‘something' is needed, or a specific color is required. A fun gift for everyone in the office would be carnations dyed green on St. Patrick's Day. The cost is minimal, and would be nice for everyone to have one to wear.