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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Flowers of Ice

While many plants can be damaged or killed by freezing temperatures or frost, this varies by the type of plant and tissue exposed to these conditions.  In our region, there is a plant called Frostweed (Verbesina virginica), which is commonly found in low-lying areas near streams, creeks, canyon bottoms, and in dappled shade at woodland edges. 

For much of the year, Frostweed goes unnoticed while it grows tall and leafy, the top of each of its stalks crowned by clusters of small white flowers.  It begins to bloom in the August heat, and continues until first frost, well into fall.  In fact, this leggy plant is a rare late-season nectar and pollen source, as its blooms are a magnet for fall migrating hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies, as well as a host of other insects.

However, it is with the first frost or sub-freezing temperatures that this plant really puts on an unexpected show.  When temperatures dip, the water contained in each plant stem expands, causing the stems to crack.  Via capillary action, more water is drawn through the cracks, freezes when it hits the cold air, and forms long curls of ice, reminiscent of petals of an intricate flower or of a delicate, abstract sculpture.

These very delicate ice forms are fleeting in nature, and can only be found in early morning, as the rising temperature of the day quickly melts them away.