From the enticing aroma of the turkey in the oven to the “whoosh’” of the flames as the brandy-soaked pudding comes alight, Christmas is a wonderful time for the senses. But have you ever considered the science behind our best-loved festive traditions? Here is one of my seven food and flammable favourites: The others can be found on this website.
Christmas trees are very flammable, for the same reasons that forest fires can spread quickly. One of the culprits is a molecule called pinene. As you’d guess from its name, it’s found in pine trees and contributes to their special smell.
While it goes without saying that playing with fire should come with extra precautions, here’s something involving pine cones you can try at home and which will put a bit of colour into your Christmas. Make up solutions of different salts dissolved in water, such as copper sulphate solution (used to kill algae and available to buy online) or sodium chloride (common salt) solution. Soak the pine cones in one of these solutions overnight, then take them out and let them dry out. When you put them on top of a coal fire, they’ll burn with a coloured flame: yellow for common salt, turquoise for copper sulphate – a taste of the chemistry-related magic of Christmas.