Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Frostweed debuts its ice trick for 2012

with 44 comments

Frostweed Ice 1594

If you don’t recall or don’t know what Verbesina virginica looks like when it’s fresh, you may want to take a quick look back at a picture from this summer. As for the origin of the vernacular name frostweed, let me repeat what I wrote at the end of November last year. The common name for this species comes from one of the strangest phenomena in botany. By the time the first good frost settles overnight on the lands where frostweed grows, almost all of these plants have gone to seed. Although each stalk stands there unappealingly as it dries out, that first touch of hard frost can cause it to draw underground water up into its base. Now for the strange trick: the lower part of the stalk splits open as it extrudes freezing water laterally, and that process produces thin sheets of ice that curl and fold around the broken stalk and sometimes even unscroll away from it (you can see that unscrolling in a photograph from last year).

I took this picture of the fabled frostweed phenomenon yesterday morning in Great Hills Park. The sun had already been climbing for a couple of hours, and as its light reached the frostweed and the temperature rose, the ice began to melt. You can see that the narrow cone of ice that formed the right-hand peak of this formation had come loose from the frostweed stalk and was leaning far enough over that it would soon fall off. The whole left side of the ice already looks partially detached from the stalk as well. In the mild climate of Austin, frostweed ice rarely makes it through the morning, and yesterday was no exception.

To see the many places in the southeastern third of the United States where Verbesina virginica grows, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

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Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 12, 2012 at 6:19 AM

44 Responses

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  1. Amazing, surprising, wow!!!
    I don’t think we have this sort of plant over here!
    thanks for sharing

    chatou11

    December 12, 2012 at 6:40 AM

    • I feel the same way you do about the phenomenon. Unless this American species has been transplanted to Europe, you’re correct that you don’t have it over there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 6:44 AM

  2. Hooray! One of my favorite harbingers of winter, and one I’ve never seen here on the coast. Now I know why. According to the map, Galveston and Chambers counties are out of the frostweed loop. This is quite different from most I’ve seen, where the extrusions are more loopy and ribbony. This reminds me of the scrolls of the Torah.

    Here’s a question that just occurred to me. Last year, my Hill Country friends searched and searched for frostweed “blooms” and never found a single one. We assumed it was a temperature thing, or just bad luck. Now, I wonder if the drought played a role, too, with less water available for putting on the show.

    I’m just so happy to see this. Thanks for being out there “on the hunt” for us!

    shoreacres

    December 12, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    • I gave an inner hooray, too, when went to the nearest place where I know frostweed grows, looked down the embankment, and saw some tell-tale patches of white a hundred feet away. My outdoor home thermometer had read 36°, so I wasn’t sure there’d be any frostweed ice, but happily there was.

      I’ve seen photographs where the extrusions are more ribbony and loopy, as you said, but for whatever reason, the parallel scrolls shown here (which might coincidentally be saying Happy Hannukah) are the configuration that’s by far the most common one I encounter in Austin.

      My Great Hills neighborhood in Austin is one mile west of the eastern boundary of the Texas Hill Country, which I’m therefore a resident of. We had frostweed ice here in 2011, despite the drought, so I don’t know why your friends farther west in the Hill Country wouldn’t have had it too. Perhaps your friends were just unlucky, as you speculated, and didn’t come across any plants that were doing their thing. Or maybe conditions were different enough there compared to Austin that the phenomenon didn’t happen. I’m certainly glad to have seen it several years in a row here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 7:27 AM

  3. It’s astonishingly seductive–giving new meaning to playing with nature and human nature. It reminds me of silken cocoons–spinning of webs and the like. Thanks for another look at a fascinating touch by nature.

    lensandpensbysally

    December 12, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    • You’re welcome, Sally. You’re the first person I’ve heard call this ice phenomenon seductive, but I like that description. As often as I’ve photographed spiderwebs and spider silk, somehow I’d never conceived frostweed ice as having been spun, whether by a spider or caterpillar. Once again your imagination has gone beyond mine; good for you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 7:51 AM

  4. That cool ice formation is back again. :)

    Dawn

    December 12, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    • Yes, and it means I have to go out and brave the cold again. Actually I kept busy yesterday morning and didn’t feel cold, which surprised me.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 8:17 AM

  5. Frostig schön und einzigartig.

    LG Mathilda :-)

    Mathilda

    December 12, 2012 at 8:23 AM

  6. So beautiful and unusual and even the flowers looked lovely in their turn.

    afrenchgarden

    December 12, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    • You’re right, of course, and yet this is one of the many wildflowers to which people have given a name with weed in it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 11:38 AM

  7. The endless wonders of the natural world, nice catch.

    garyschollmeier

    December 12, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    • Some of those wonders are seasonal (and in this case more narrowly confined to early cold weather). They give us something to look forward to when the season comes around again each year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 11:42 AM

  8. I am always amazed at the way temperature can affect water. Especially the cold. Frozen water fonts with icicles running down the sides. Red clay that extrudes the water up into frozen pyres, that lifting stones and pebbles out of the ground seem as little offerings to the cold morning. Recently, having left the hose out on a freezing night, I discovered that you can watch the freezing process if the trickle is slow enough (a frozen hose will do that for you). Holding the hose into the water bucket I watched in fascination as flat planes of ice crystal began to form and swirl under the water. Like this + but, if you can imagine it, they grew out in all six directions at once!

    Your captured Frostweed’s trick is no less amazing to me. ~Lynda

    pixilated2

    December 12, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    • I haven’t seen most of the things you describe, but they sound like good opportunities for some camera work on your part, especially as you have several months of winter ahead of you. I jump at the chance to photograph frostweed at this time of year because in Austin we rarely get much ice for photographers to play with. For example, although the temperature was around freezing this morning and there was a second round of frostweed ice, the temperature as I’m writing to you at noon is 53°.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 12:02 PM

      • Are you saying that the frostweed produced ice when it was 53 deg.?
        I haven’t any photos yet, but I did find something very similar to the freezing action I saw two weeks back. I hope I did this right and you get the link and not the video. ;)

        pixilated2

        December 12, 2012 at 12:11 PM

        • That’s an excellent science video; thanks for bringing it to our attention.

          I mentioned the 53° to show you how the day warms up here. When I left this morning’s frostweed plants at around 11 o’clock, most of the ice had already melted, even though it was still in the shade.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 12, 2012 at 12:29 PM

      • Oops! Sorry!

        pixilated2

        December 12, 2012 at 12:12 PM

    • “amazed at the way temperature can affect water”
      John Locke tells a story of the British ambassador at the court of the king of Siam (southern Asia) whom he told about water: if it gets very cold it becomes so hard that you can walk on it. The king’s response was: Ambassador, I believed all things you told me about your country, because you seem to be an honest and reasonable man, but after hearing this I have to declare You a shameless liar, Ambassador!
      My preoccupation with effects of low temperature: http://adabrowka.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/cool-doxology/

      Andrzej Dąbrówka

      December 12, 2012 at 2:10 PM

      • Good for you that you get to play with ice for months on end. I take the little I can get, as we rarely have ice (or snow) in Austin.

        I tracked down the John Locke account, which appears in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

        “If I myself see a man walk on the ice, it is past probability; it is knowledge. But if another tells me he saw a man in England, in the midst of a sharp winter, walk upon water hardened with cold, this has so great conformity with what is usually observed to happen that I am disposed by the nature of the thing itself to assent to it; unless some manifest suspicion attend the relation of that matter of fact. But if the same thing be told to one born between the tropics, who never saw nor heard of any such thing before, there the whole probability relies on testimony: and as the relators are more in number, and of more credit, and have no interest to speak contrary to the truth, so that matter of fact is like to find more or less belief. Though to a man whose experience has always been quite contrary, and who has never heard of anything like it, the most untainted credit of a witness will scarce be able to find belief… As it happened to a Dutch ambassador, who entertaining the king of Siam with the particularities of Holland, which he was inquisitive after, amongst other things told him that the water in his country would sometimes, in cold weather, be so hard that men walked upon it, and that it would bear an elephant, if he were there. To which the king replied, Hitherto I have believed the strange things you have told me, because I look upon you as a sober fair man, but now I am sure you lie.”

        Steve Schwartzman

        December 12, 2012 at 4:06 PM

      • Thanks for correcting my anecdote, today the Dutch ambassador (neither the British) wouldn’t be so sure about the elephant. Only last winter, strongest in more than a decade, had their canals frozen again.
        Last winter was extremely strong in Poland, too, my roses were frozen.
        I made many photos of ice-shapes, and even gave them a genre-name: lodoplastyka.

        http://dabrowka.salon24.pl/277168,lodoplastyka

        Andrzej Dąbrówka

        December 12, 2012 at 4:18 PM

        • I’m sorry, but somehow WordPress put your comments in the spam folder, something that has happened to other people from time to time. I discovered it only today.

          How nice of you to have given a name to ice shapes. I wish I had more opportunities to photograph them.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 17, 2012 at 11:21 AM

  9. You are one awesome photographer, Steve! Love your stuff.

    Joan Leacott

    December 12, 2012 at 4:12 PM

  10. Yet another remarkable photograph from you, and the story behind it is equally remarkable.

    Susan Scheid

    December 12, 2012 at 9:02 PM

    • Thanks, Susan. This phenomenon really is remarkable. I went back for another round of pictures this morning after the overnight temperature got down to freezing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 9:07 PM

  11. That’s beautiful and fascinating both! I had never heard of it.

    montucky

    December 12, 2012 at 9:46 PM

    • I lived in Austin for a quarter of a century before I heard of it, and some years more before I finally saw it. Kids in school here should learn about it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 12, 2012 at 10:30 PM

  12. Now that photo really stirred up some people. My weed did not do that when it froze the other night. Still had lots of green leaves on the plants. I have oodles of frostweed. I grow for the bees and the butterflies. Have photos posted on my blog with queens and some bees. This plant is so easy to grow. In fact it was on our property when my husband and I married. I leave stands of it in some places and have even moved some of it around. It is a great perennial and readily re-seeds. This is a native that people should try to grow since it really attracts butterflies where I live. I’m not sure of the soil needs but the soil here is black and crumbly with caliche 8-12 inches down in some places.

    petspeopleandlife

    December 12, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    • Yes, it has proved to be a popular photo. As for the frostweed, I noticed yesterday that some of the plants with ice on them here also still had leaves, which surprised me, because that isn’t usually the case (or maybe I was so excited to be able to photograph the ice in years past that I wasn’t as observant then as I should have been. I’m glad you have oodles of frostweed on your property, and of long standing. And speaking of standing, the fact that frostweed can grow to 10 ft. tall may be one reason some people think of it as weedy. I’m not one of those people.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 13, 2012 at 5:26 AM

      • Thanks for the reply. Some of the frostweed is way over my head but I think max is probably 6 feet or maybe 7 at the most. By the time the really tall frosty blooms, the heavy blossom heads causes the plant to fall over. Every year I say that I’m going to stake the tall ones but maybe next year…

        petspeopleandlife

        December 13, 2012 at 1:38 PM

  13. What a pity that your readers who are unfamiliar with frostweed should see only this form of the phenomenon, however interesting! Even if their technical quality is not up to your current capabilities, do please show them the glory of your “frostweed ice” series. It overpowers the heart.

    TEXena

    December 13, 2012 at 1:07 AM

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. I did something along the lines you suggest (but without going as far back as you’d probably like) by including the second link in the text above, which takes viewers back to a different sort of frostweed ice picture from last year. In general on this blog I’ve shown older photos of something only if I don’t have something relatively recent, though there have been a few exceptions.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 13, 2012 at 5:34 AM

  14. You say that the “first touch of hard frost can cause it to draw underground water up into its base”, but are you SURE that what’s already there isn’t just forced out by the natural expansion as water is transformed into the solid state?

    TEXena

    December 13, 2012 at 1:14 AM

    • It’s a phenomenon that’s not all that well understood, but you can find out a lot about it from Bob Harms’ site at:

      http://w3.biosci.utexas.edu/prc/VEVI3/crystallofolia.html

      One sentence there notes that “when the formation extends up for some distance its base is always larger, generally gradually tapering to the top, supporting the view that it forms primarily from moisture supplied by the roots.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 13, 2012 at 5:35 AM

    • Thanks for the link. I’m glad some other people in our area appreciate these “frost flowers,” which many residents are unaware of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 13, 2012 at 9:59 AM

  15. Hi. I haven’t heard of this before. Your photo really captures the moment. Jane

    jane tims

    December 13, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    • Even a lot of people here haven’t heard of this, so it’s not surprising that you haven’t. I’m glad you like the way the photograph captures the moment.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 13, 2012 at 8:42 PM

  16. […] week you saw a picture of the frostweed ice I spent a couple of hours photographing on December 11. In a later post that showed a deer’s […]

  17. […] weed (Verbesina virginica) doesn’t grow here in Alberta, so finding this post about it was something “new and cool” for me.  Are you familiar with this […]

  18. […] 2012 […]


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