[W]hat a severe yet master artist old Winter is…. No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel.
~John Burroughs, 1866
Yesterday’s post shared some of the intricate beauties of a frosty morning – objects adorned with tiny crystals that reveal new patterns and create sculpted coats on everything in the landscape. One of my coworkers saw me out taking photos and asked if I had seen any frost flowers. He then went on to explain they usually occur on a couple of species of plants (he threw the Latin names out and they escaped me) in the garden, but he couldn’t remember exactly where they were. I replied I had not seen any, all the while searching my memory bank for an image of what a frost flower looked like. We parted and I put the camera away and went out to fill the feeders in the bird blind. As I was walking back, something caught my eye in one of the garden beds…
That has to be one – a frost flower! I ran and got the camera and told our communications assistant about it so she could get some photos as well. The sun was hitting that area so it would not last long. There were two plants with these unusual structures. A quick web search helped explain this bizarre phenomenon.
More commonly called ice flowers, these structures go by a variety of other local names – frost flowers, ice ribbons, and rabbit ice to name a few. Several resources mentioned that although they are often called “frost flowers”, these formations are not a type of frost. It seems as though these beautiful creations are caused by a process called ice segregation. Under certain conditions of temperature and humidity in late autumn and early winter, super cold water moves through a medium toward ice, freezes at the interface, and adds to the ice.
At this time of year in some species, water is still being brought up from the soil by the roots or through capillary action. When conditions are right, the water expands in the dried stems, fracturing thin slits in the stem wall. Water squeezes from cracks in the stem and becomes ice, pushing the previous ice further out. Ice crystals on the outside of the stem may be a prerequisite for the formation of ice flowers. There are quite a few resources online with many beautiful photos of this phenomenon – see Ice Flowers and Find an Ice Flower Before it Melts for samples. For reasons that are not fully understood, this has been found in relatively few species of plants. I hope to get some help identifying this one by its basal leaves when I get back to the office. And now that I have seen my first ice flowers, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for these delicate, ephemeral beauties on cold frosty mornings in the future.