Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Not quite freezing, but cold enough

with 57 comments

Frostweed Ice 1637

When I checked the outside thermometer yesterday morning at around 5:30, it read 38°F (3°C): not quite freezing but cold enough, I verified a few hours later in Great Hills Park, for frostweed (Verbesina virginica) to have done its ice trick overnight. Only a few plants were involved, and the formations fell short of the best and biggest ones I’ve seen, but at least we finally had a bit of icy delicacy in what has so far been a winter without a winter. If you’re new to this phenomenon, the next paragraph is a version of the explanation I gave in previous years.

The name frostweed comes from one of the strangest phenomena in botany. By the time the first freeze settles in overnight on the lands where this species grows, almost all of these plants have gone to seed. Although each stalk stands there dried out and unappealing, that first frigid touch can cause it to draw underground water up into its base. Now for the bizarre part: the section of the stalk immediately above the ground splits open as it extrudes freezing water laterally, and the process produces fragile sheets of ice that curl and fold around the broken stalk or even unscroll away from it.

Here’s a closer look at some of those little icy scrolls I photographed yesterday:

Frostweed Ice Detail 1621A

If you’d like to see views of frostweed ice from former years, here are a few:





© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 12, 2016 at 5:02 AM

57 Responses

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  1. Las imágenes son maravillosas, Steve, el detalle que aportas en la segunda foto es impresionante y bellísima. Gracias por ellas y por tu excelente explicación sobre la formación del hielo en la planta.
    ¡Buen día!

    • Aunque la primera foto demuestra bien el fenómeno, decidí añadir la segunda porque revela mejor los detalles y es una imagen más artística.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 6:39 AM

  2. Botany never ceases to amaze. This phenomenon is sooooo cool (literally and figuratively.)


    January 12, 2016 at 6:08 AM

  3. Such a ‘cool’ plant. ❄️⛄️❄️

    Jim Ruebush

    January 12, 2016 at 6:36 AM

  4. Amazing what nature provides!


    January 12, 2016 at 6:38 AM

  5. I love seeing this stuff!


    January 12, 2016 at 6:43 AM

  6. Wow! Great photos


    January 12, 2016 at 7:22 AM

  7. This is just the neatest thing. I think it is poetic that you have a plant that gives you just a taste of winter.


    January 12, 2016 at 8:23 AM

    • And just a taste is just enough for someone who doesn’t do well in the cold. The forecast for this afternoon is 60°. It remains to be seen whether we’ll get another chance this winter for frostweed ice or, less probably, ice on a creek, which is rare here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 8:30 AM

      • I won’t even bother telling you what it is doing here. I’m busy on realtor.com, praying for a property I can afford!


        January 12, 2016 at 8:35 AM

        • Good luck on fording Afforability Creek.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 12, 2016 at 8:38 AM

          • Maybe the headlines about the scary subduction zone will lower prices.


            January 12, 2016 at 8:46 AM

            • For your sake, I hope subduction will work a kind of seduction on the real estate market.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 12, 2016 at 3:53 PM

              • Yes. And now it seems I’ll have to abduct my daughter. She went to a concert in Chicago last night and now doesn’t want to ever leave!


                January 12, 2016 at 4:17 PM

                • If you abduct your daughter she’ll be abject and object to moving.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 12, 2016 at 8:27 PM

                • You are quite right about that. I am trying to wrap my mind around the concept of choosing to buy a house here instead. Maybe that suits me. You have to look harder for beauty here, but there is much to see when you put your mind to it.


                  January 13, 2016 at 9:55 AM

                • For the most part Austin isn’t a great scenic place, yet look at all the bits of nature I’ve kept finding here. As you say, “there is much to see when you put your mind to it.” At the same time, I understand that you’d rather be where you’d rather be, and probably nothing will ever change that.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 13, 2016 at 10:06 AM

                • Probably true but I’m coming around. There is a cute little cottage near a non-motorized lake that I’m talking with a realtor about. It just might work, then I can begin working on my dream of a gallery nestled in a garden for people to visit and enjoy. My daughter pointed out that we could simply not be open in the winter months, and hibernate with our books. Hmmm. I like how the girl thinks!


                  January 13, 2016 at 3:31 PM

  8. how beautiful it is!


    January 12, 2016 at 8:33 AM

  9. I’ve been following you long enough now that I have come to expect images of frostweed long about this time of year. I really do envy you the climate that allows for such a phenomenon for I don’t believe that Vermont winters lend themselves to it. Thanks for keeping up the annual tradition. Absolutely fascinating. D

    Pairodox Farm

    January 12, 2016 at 8:50 AM

    • You’re welcome. The winter has been so mild I was wondering if I’d get to see frostweed ice this season. If not, I’d probably eventually have pulled out an unshown picture or two from earlier years (as you might imagine, there are many) to make a post anyhow. You may not have frostweed but in Vermont you get real ice and snow to play with photographically.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 3:48 PM

  10. I remember this from last year and sent your photos to plant-loving friends in the South. None had seen this. You are very observant and I thank you for letting us see the phenomena again. Just amazing.


    January 12, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    • You’re welcome. Now I know what to expect and when to expect it, but I lived in Austin for a couple of decades before I ever heard about the frostweed ice phenomenon, and even then it took some more years before I finally experienced it, so I’m afraid I wasn’t all that observant initially.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 3:51 PM

  11. Amazing. I learned something new.

    Sherry Lynn Felix

    January 12, 2016 at 9:00 AM

  12. Fantastic pictures. And thanks for the enlightening information. I didn’t know about that phenomenon.
    Here, btw, we do have freezing nights. But during the day it’s usually fine.
    Have a great day,


    January 12, 2016 at 9:10 AM

    • Perhaps you can get a native plant person to point out some frostweed plants in your area so you can check them out on the morning after a freeze. Even though you’ve had some freezes already, the phenomenon may still occur on plants not already affected previously. If it’s already too late, you can plan to keep watch over some frostweed plants after the first freezes late this year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 3:41 PM

  13. I was talking to my Kerrville friend last night, and asked if she’d seen frostweed yet. She had — about a week ago. Houston recorded its first freeze at Intercontinental yesterday morning, and I wondered if you’d found some of these delights. I’m so glad you did.

    Even though you say these weren’t your biggest or best, the photos are interesting because of a clarity not always seen in frostweed photos. The extrusions often tend to be more opaque: more frosty, if you will. But these show an ice-like clarity that I really like..


    January 12, 2016 at 10:08 AM

    • Clarity, thy name is Steven—except when I’m busy doing selective focus or otherwise contending with low light. (I’m only half-joking when I say that the clarity I cultivated as a math teacher has carried over into my nature photography.) Because the textures and tiny striations in frostweed ice are its most intriguing features, at least for me, I try to include as much detail as I can. The originals are much larger and therefore show even more detail than these reduced-for-the-Internet versions.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 3:37 PM

  14. Wonderful photography …


    January 12, 2016 at 3:05 PM

  15. Green with envy. I have yet to see this. The spot I visit in spring for these gets mowed.

    Steve Gingold

    January 12, 2016 at 7:32 PM

    • I’m sorry but not at all surprised to hear about the mowing. Something there is that doesn’t love a wildflower.

      I remember that your frostweed is quite a different plant, Helianthemum canadense, with yellow flowers, as opposed to the white flowers of Verbesina virginica. With whatever species, I do hope you get to see the ice trick someday.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 8:42 PM

  16. This is just beautiful Steve – amazing what nature can create. Little pieces of art!


    January 12, 2016 at 8:02 PM

    • I like the way you put that, Inger: little pieces of art. It’s quite ephemeral art, at that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 12, 2016 at 8:44 PM

  17. what a fascinating phenomenon. i have never noticed this, so this is something i will be watching for on frosty mornings. the weather has been quite mild this winter, with only a few days of frost so far, but this is good to know. thanks for sharing.

    pix & kardz

    January 13, 2016 at 1:10 AM

    • Central Texas has had a mild winter as well, so much so that I’d wondered whether I’d get to see frostweed ice this season. I don’t know if the phenomenon occurs where you live; the first step would be to find out whether Verbesina virginica grows in your area. If so, you can keep an eye on some frostweed plants and check them out on the morning after your first freeze of the year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 13, 2016 at 8:03 AM

  18. That is fascinating, I have never seen anything like that, thanks for the photos.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    January 14, 2016 at 7:07 PM

    • There are plenty of frostweed plants in Austin and therefore plenty of opportunities to see this phenomenon, yet few people know about it. Welcome to the wonder.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 14, 2016 at 7:58 PM

  19. The frostweed’s ice trick is one of my favorites. Even though this might be a smaller showing, you’ve made the most of it, particularly with that close–up.

    Susan Scheid

    January 17, 2016 at 9:56 AM

    • The first picture was just for documentation. I agree with you that the close-up was artsier, and that’s why I added it to the post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 17, 2016 at 1:02 PM

  20. Great photos.
    This is amazing!
    I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this before!!!!!!


    January 18, 2016 at 4:59 PM

    • Even in places where frostweed is common, like Austin, most people are unaware of this phenomenon. Welcome to the world of strange.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 18, 2016 at 5:24 PM

  21. This is such a strange and beautiful sight to me. It’s certainly a phenomenon I’m unlikely to encounter here in sunny Queensland. My list of reasons to visit Texas is growing, but what season is the best? I would only have the choice of one. 🙂


    January 23, 2016 at 12:39 AM

    • Given the choice of just one season, you’re likely to get the most out of your time in the spring because of the fields of wildflowers. Probably on average late April or early May would be the best, even though by then it’s already hot here.

      It got down to freezing this morning so I went out for another round of frostweed ice pictures. As you say, it’s not something you’ll encounter in sunny Queensland, and even here most people don’t know about it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2016 at 6:32 PM

  22. […] to Great Hills Park and found more frostweed plants with extruded ice near their bases than when I’d visited 12 days earlier. Of the many pictures I took on that return outing, I’ve chosen to show you two that are […]

  23. […] helianthoides. If the genus name is familiar, you may be remembering the Verbesina virginica whose wintry ice trick I’ve documented in these pages several times. Below is a closer look at the faded and […]

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