Petals of Ice

[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…

Frost flower 1

My first frost flower (click photos to enlarge)

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.

Frost flower with pen for scale

An ice flower with a pen for scale

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.

Frost flower

Ice flowers typically have curved “petals”

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 onĀ cold frosty mornings in the future.

Frosty Morning

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.

~John Burroughs

It has finally turned cold, the true feeling of winter is now in the air. Walking in to to my office yesterday morning I could see the early hour handiwork of an special artist whose work is only available certain months of the year. Everything within a few feet of the ground was delicately sculpted with miniature pillars of ice – a heavy frost covered the plants and ground, painting the world with a crystalline white palette. I couldn’t resist and grabbed my camera for a walk-about to see the frosty splendor. Below are some of my favorites from a stroll through a temporary world of frozen masterpieces.

blueberry leaf

A native blueberry shrub with one frozen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Southern maidenhair fern

Southern maidenhair fern

Phlox flowers

The last delicate phlox flowers of the season

Creeping blueberry?

The tiny leaves of what I think is a creeping blueberry

Lotus leaf upside down with frost

The last leaf on an American lotus droops over towards the water

bushy broomsedge seeds

Grass seeds

There are so many interesting seed heads now and they were all covered by ice crystals, adding another layer of beauty to these minute botanical sculptures.

seed head

bushy seeds

Coneflower seed head

Maryland golden aster seed heads?

Partia seed head

seed head 2

The frosty detail of a single stem of horse tail is simple, yet elegant.

Horse tail

Horse tail (scouring rush)

My favorite icy hosts were the pitcher plants. Their unusual shapes and colors seem an unlikely companion to a coating of ice crystals, but they manage to pull it off.

Pair of pitcher plants

Large crystals formed on the top of pitcher plants that have “lids”

Hooded pitcher plant 2

The hooded pitcher plants developed a “spinal column” of tiny frost crystals

Hybrid pitcher plant top

The ice enhances the details on this hybrid pitcher plant


Hooded pitchers

The hooded pitcher plants have such artistic forms

Hooded pitcher plant 1

A shape that could make a sculptor envious

Tops of pitchers

If plants huddle for warmth, this was a day to do it

But the most unusual ice feature of the morning is one I had never seen before…I will share that mystery with you in the next post.






First Frost

Blackberry leaf

Frost-covered leaf (click photos to enlarge)

I looked out the window this morning and saw that the dawn had left its mark on the meadow – faint traces of ice coated the grasses and other low-lying vegetation under the power line – the season’s first frost.

Grass blade

Grass blade with ice crystals

Frost is deposition of water vapor directly into ice crystals on a cold surface. Frost typically forms on objects close to the ground, such as blades of grass. At night, a blade of grass loses energy by emitting radiation, but it absorbs energy emitted by surrounding objects. Under clear nighttime skies like we had last night, objects near the ground emit more radiation than they receive from the sky, and so a blade of grass cools due to the net energy loss. When temperatures hover near the freezing point and an object such as a blade of grass gets cold enough, frost will form on it.

Mourning Dove feather

Mourning Dove feather

Up on the hill above the garden, the frost had formed only on very low-lying objects – mainly the grass that I had recently mowed or objects lying on the grass such as a few feathers near the bird feeder station.

Sweet Gum leaf

Sweet Gum leaf

As I walked downhill the frost had reached higher and by the time I reached the low point of the power line meadow, it had touched vegetation up to 2 feet off the ground (tree saplings, tall grasses, etc.) probably due to the sinking and collecting of cold, humid air in these low pockets overnight.

Frost Aster flower

Frost Aster flowers

Even the aptly-named Frost Aster flowers had a coating of crystals at the base of the hill, but not up near the garden. As the sun rose higher, the icy filigree began its retreat until it finally lingered in only the deepest shade in the valley, and even there, it would soon succumb and have to wait for another dawn to be reborn. I welcome the first frost as a sign of good things to come – campfires under a starry sky, the simple pleasure of heating with wood that you cut and split yourself, and the return of migrants from the far north. It is just the beginning, but the cold, crisp nights of winter are not far behind, and with them, a new set of adventures. On the next chilly morning, go outside and look at the handiwork of frost and you will be amazed at her delicate attention to detail as she paints the landscape.

Horse Nettle leaf

Horse Nettle leaf

Grass stems

Grass stems

Frosty leaf

Frost-lined leaf

Grass seed head 1

Grass seed head

Purple leaf

Purple leaf