Frost Flowers: A Winter Oddity

A few years ago, when I was still living in the general proximity of the Mississippi River instead of almost as far away from it as I can get and still count myself as living in one of the contiguous states, I was walking through the woods with some friends. It was fall, and though the mornings were lip-bustingly cold, by midday, the sun warmed things up quite nicely. Both fortunately and unfortunately for me, it was still morning.

Frost flower in the Ozarks. Photo by Josiah Johnston, found in wikicommons.

Frost flowers are one of nature’s most fleeting oddities: they can only form in the exact right conditions, and they soon melt away beneath the sun’s warm rays. Frost flowers, or ice blossoms, or crystallofolia if you want to get fancy, are just like what their name sounds: gentle ribbons and petals of frost created by plants.

They form on nights cold enough to create ice, but not so cold that the ground water is frozen and thus unable to move. The water in the plant’s stem expands, creating thin cracks in the stem, and water gets pulled up from the ground through the stem using capillary action. Once the water makes contact with the cold air, it freezes, and thin, delicate ribbons of ice emerge from the stem and surround the plant.

“Watch out,” my friend hollered at me. I stopped in my tracks: hiking with me is like hiking with a half-blind, totally-oblivious bull that believes it is in a china shop and is excited about making a racket. I get my walking philosophy from a herd of elephants. I am bad news if you’re on the prowl for something rare and delicate. My friend drops to her knees and I follow suit. She points a little bit ahead of me. Half-hidden by browned grass and dropped leaves is a sliver of pure white: a frost flower.

Frost flower in Kentucky. Photo by Zotel, found on wikicommons.

What makes frost flowers even more difficult to find is the fact that only a few plant species can actually create them. Verbesina, or crownbeard, is one. Helianthemum, or rock rose, is another. To see a frost flower, you have to find these plants on a cold morning.

All blossoms wilt and fade with time, but these only have a few hours before they melt back into the ground, leaving behind no evidence that they were even here at all. Well, unless you get a picture.

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