Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

No frost, but frostweed did its icy trick

with 61 comments

Frostweed Ice 8064

Early this week we had afternoon highs in the low 80s, but then an Arctic front came through and the weather turned bleak, windy, and cold. When I looked at the outside thermometer yesterday morning and saw that the temperature was 28°, I knew I had to drive the half-mile downhill to check the place in Great Hills Park where frostweed grows in goodly numbers. Sure enough, several dozen Verbesina virginica plants had done their magic ice trick, and I found plenty to photograph in the two hours that I spent out there in the cold (oh, the sacrifices that we nature photographers make).

Those of you in northern latitudes have lots of chances to take pictures of snow and ice, things that are rare down here in Austin. Today’s photograph shows the one form of ice that we have here that most of you have never seen, except perhaps in this blog for the past two years. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on here, I’ll repeat the explanation I’ve given before. The common name for this species comes from one of the strangest phenomena in botany. By the time of the first good overnight frost (i.e. freeze), almost all of these plants have gone to seed. Although each stalk stands there dried out and unappealing, the freeze 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 out around the broken stalk.

In this latest photograph you’re looking at a pair of frostweed stalks, each with ice sheets scrolling in two directions.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 8, 2013 at 6:00 AM

61 Responses

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  1. Fascinating! How can it survive wrapped up in an icy blanket?


    December 8, 2013 at 6:34 AM

    • Frostweed is a perennial, so my impression is that the ice-affected stalks don’t survive and the plant produces new ones in the spring. If a stalk has to die, this is a great way to go.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 9:07 AM

  2. Never seen that…Great, and I am sure I have never heard or seen images of this before


    December 8, 2013 at 7:18 AM

  3. When you first introduced us to this plant, I was stunned. This year’s version is even more fascinating. Sorry, but even in its subtle beauty, reminds me of mummies. Or bolts of thread.


    December 8, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    • I’ve tried to vary the picture from year to year, and this is the first time I’ve showed more than one stalk. No need to apologize for your imagination, Sally; mine didn’t see mummies or bolts of cloth, but Torah scrolls.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 9:28 AM

  4. I’ve never seen anything like this. Extraordinary!


    December 8, 2013 at 8:08 AM

    • It is an extraordinary show, one I’ve been fortunate to experience three years in a row, and therefore to be able to bring to you, too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 9:30 AM

  5. This looks like sculpture in modern art!


    December 8, 2013 at 9:18 AM

  6. Wow! First time I’ve seen this, it’s fantastic! 🙂


    December 8, 2013 at 9:47 AM

  7. What a remarkable plant! Nature does some truly amazing things. I’ve never seen anything like that. Thanks.

    Jim in IA

    December 8, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    • Remarkable is the right word for this plant.

      I just looked at the USDA map and found that Verbesina virginica has been found in two Iowa counties, so maybe you’ll get to see the “frost flowers” one of these years. The key is to locate some of these plants when the weather is still warm so you’ll know where to look when the first freeze hits. Some frostweed plants put on a second or even third performance.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 10:21 AM

  8. This kinda reminds me of birch bark done in ice ! Fantastic shot. I searched the web looking for the plant’s natural range ( still looking for that ). And saw quite a range of the forms the ice can take. Wild botanical art ! Thanks Steve !

    John Hric

    December 8, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    • You’re welcome, John. I like your descriptions of “birch bark done in ice” and “wild botanical art.” Yes, you’ve gotta watch out for us wild nature photographers.

      As for the range of frostweed, you can see it on the USDA map. Clicking a state brings up (usually) a county-by-county view of where the species has been found within the state.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      • Steve,
        Thanks for the link to the USDA map. It is here in Ohio, now to find it on the right day. Either that or go out to the Rockcreek area of Ashtabula county on one of those days when there is hoar frost on everything !

        John Hric

        December 8, 2013 at 11:59 AM

  9. Oh, hooray! When the cold weather hit, I thought about “my” frostweed up in the hill country and hoped you would see some again this year. I’ve never seen such long, smooth extrusions. The ones I’ve encountered have tended to be more ribbon-like, often from multiple but separated breaks in the stalk.

    These do look like Torah scrolls. My first thought was of the long pipe-curls my mother insisted I wear as a child, as I did on this first day of first grade.


    December 8, 2013 at 11:06 AM

    • And I thought about “my” frostweed down in Great Hills Park, which you see didn’t disappoint. I’ve seen photographs of the more ribbony outgrowths, and I’ve even encountered them “in the flesh,” but the long, smooth extrusions are by far more common in my area.

      I surprised myself, as someone who’s not religious, by thinking of Torah scrolls, but that’s what I saw and still see. I’d not heard of the term “pipe-curls,” but your photograph makes clear why you thought of them and of your former self. Oh, the times that were and are no more…

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 3:26 PM

  10. Fantastic! Phantasmagorical, even. I can’t think of anything that I’ve seen or heard of that’s quite its equal. Sometimes I’m foolish and forgetful enough to stop being constantly astonished at nature, and then some beauty like this pops up to spank my errant, wandering attention back online. Thanks for this!


    December 8, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    • You’re welcome, and you’re the first person ever to use the fantastic word phantasmagorical on this site. And yes, this is quite a phenomenon, with various names used for it. The website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center mentions ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fringes, ice fingers, ice filaments, ice leaves, frost flowers, frost ribbons, frost freaks, frost beards, frost castles, crystallofolia (coined by Bob Harms at The University of Texas), rabbit ice and rabbit butter. You’re welcome to them all.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 4:36 PM

      • Wahoo! So many delicious terms all at once, but the phenomenon is such a dandy it deserves all the attention and accolades. Thanks again.


        December 8, 2013 at 10:21 PM

        • And you’re welcome again. I like your savory description of all those terms as “delicious.” Bon appétit.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 8, 2013 at 11:14 PM

  11. I have only seen this recently on someone else’s blog and find the whole phenomena so fascinating. Never seen anything like it here in the UK.


    December 8, 2013 at 4:54 PM

  12. As the kids would say (and no pun intended) … ‘That is so cool.’ I really wish I lived in a part of the country where this phenomenon was possible. And, you were correct … I have never seen it. I learned something today. Many thanks Steve. D

    Pairodox Farm

    December 8, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    • You may be in luck, D. The USDA map at


      shows frostweed somewhere in Pennsylvania, but there’s no county map to show the distribution in the state. If you have a wildflower book for Pennsylvania, or if there a Native Plant Society, you may be able to find where frostweed grows in your neck of the woods. In the meantime, this post is a vicarious welcome to the phenomenon.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 8, 2013 at 7:24 PM

  13. Very cool!


    December 8, 2013 at 7:23 PM

  14. truly amazing


    December 8, 2013 at 8:23 PM

  15. Incredible plant and so beautiful!


    December 8, 2013 at 10:24 PM

  16. These are amazing!!

    Midwestern Plant Girl

    December 9, 2013 at 1:01 PM

  17. Amazing. I printed this out and posted it on my “news” bulletin board to share with my Chicago 1st-8th grade students.

    Pamela Breitberg

    December 9, 2013 at 5:24 PM

  18. What a great photo of an amazing phenomenon. Those ice curls left me gasping.

    Mary Mageau

    December 9, 2013 at 5:32 PM

  19. Well, I must have missed your earlier explanations, and it only convinces me to follow you more closely. This picture is so impressive. But your explanation is no less so. You have the gift that we all envy, the ability to tell a story which leaves the audience hungry for more. A great post.


    December 10, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    • Thanks, Shimon. You’re more of a storyteller than I, and you have a loyal audience for your thoughtful essays. I think of my readers as more of a “vidience” than an audience. (I thought maybe I’d just created the word vidience, but an Internet search showed me that various people beat me to it.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2013 at 2:13 PM

  20. Such an amazing nature trick!

    Susan Scheid

    December 17, 2013 at 7:18 PM

  21. […] author of Portraits of Wildflowers has, on more than one occasion posted beautiful images of frost weed. In response to these posts I have remarked that I have always felt deprived for never having the […]

  22. […] Oh, you poor baby, you must’ve been so disappointed. Mine did. […]

  23. […] phenomenon. I chose today’s view from the January 7th session because it’s unlike the one I’ve already showed from the December 7th outing. In particular it’s a lot closer, so you can see more details in the striations of the ice. […]

  24. A fantastic photo! Frostweed – who knew? Let’s say it’s a cousin to the so-called beard ice I found. Thank you for pointing me to this post.


    February 11, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    • Yes, it’s definitely related. I’m glad you got to see our local version of the phenomenon, just as I was to see yours.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 11, 2014 at 10:24 PM

  25. […] recently seen a couple of pictures of frostweed ice in Great Hills Park, but I haven’t showed you any pictures of frostweed flowers in a long […]

  26. […] 2013 […]

  27. […] two stages in the life of frostweed (Verbesina virginica), the plant that you’ve seen do its magic ice trick when the weather gets cold enough here in the […]

  28. […] No frost, but frostweed did its icy trick […]

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