Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The return of frostweed ice

with 45 comments

Frostweed Ice 2804

On the just-below-freezing morning of January 23rd I went back down 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 rather different from the two you saw last time.

For the image below, I noticed a small piece of frostweed ice broken off on the ground, so I picked it up, held it out against the sky, and photographed it. The morning was bright (as you can see from the background in the first photo), yet the camera’s sensor rendered the clear blue sky dark in comparison to the sheen of the ice. That’s a reminder of how much more sensitive to light our eyes are than the cameras we use.

Frostweed Ice Detached 2732A


How quickly the time has passed: one year ago today we began our four-week trip to New Zealand, which yielded 72 posts for this blog.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 1, 2016 at 5:05 AM

45 Responses

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  1. These shots always amaze me … I wish conditions were such, here in Vermont, that this phenomenon were possible. Ah well.

    Pairodox Farm

    February 1, 2016 at 6:38 AM

  2. I was so surprised to see the ice combined with luscious yellow and blue. I think this is what it would look like if Van Gogh had done frostweed rather than sunflowers.

    And, as awkward and klutzy as I can be with my camera, I’m filled with admiration at the thought of you holding up that ice with one hand and photographing it with the other. It certainly produced a striking photo.


    February 1, 2016 at 6:38 AM

    • I’m glad you appreciated the colored backgrounds in these two images. The frostweed plants were still in shade at the bottom of a slope at the edge of the woods, so I had to face up and away from the trees to include a panel of sky or, in the first picture, an upper portion of the slope already lit up by the rising sun.

      Over the years I’ve gotten adept at using my left hand to steady a wavering plant while holding the camera with my right hand. It’s an unorthodox technique, one I suspect you won’t find recommended anywhere, because one hand is inherently shakier than two. To mitigate the shakiness I lean the part of the camera above the viewfinder against my forehead, and when I tried out the maneuver just now I found that I also tend to press the tip of my right thumb against my forehead for a little extra stability, something I didn’t realize I do. Add to all that the fact that with the 100mm macro lens I rarely use a shutter speed slower than 1/400 sec., and the result is (usually) a sharp enough image.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 7:03 AM

  3. Nice. I doubt that it is a likelihood, but maybe a possibility that our warm up may allow some frost blooms on the old stems once we get below freezing again. I have no idea if these store moisture in the roots ala trees or not.

    Steve Gingold

    February 1, 2016 at 6:47 AM

    • I do hope you get your frost blooms. I’d really like to see the kinds of photographs you turn them into.
      It’s not clear to me if the moisture is stored in the roots or pulled into the roots from the ground as the temperature drops to freezing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 7:10 AM

      • In reading about perennials overwintering, there is mention of the root ball staying moist, watering during dry spells, and mulching for retention. I guess at least some do retain moisture. Fingers crossed.

        Thanks for fixing the typo.

        Steve Gingold

        February 1, 2016 at 7:28 AM

        • And thanks for pointing out the possibility of multiple causation: there may already be moisture in the roots, and more may get pulled in when the temperature drops.

          Just remember to uncross your fingers before using your camera.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 1, 2016 at 7:41 AM

  4. Mother nature provides such magical moments.


    February 1, 2016 at 6:54 AM

  5. Two years ago, we hiked in WV and found several examples of ice growing up out of some vegetation below a light snow. http://bit.ly/1nI1mzT
    It isn’t a close picture. I hope it shows for you.

    Jim Ruebush

    February 1, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    • I seem to remember that picture, or one similar to it. Do you think it’s the same ice phenomenon that frostweed undergoes or a different one?

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 7:47 AM

      • I didn’t investigate the source. My suspicion is that it comes from plant stems. I’ve never seen ice grow that way from the ground. We have enough around here every winter. I think I would have seen it.

        Jim Ruebush

        February 1, 2016 at 7:50 AM

        • I guess you’ll just have to take another winter trip to West Virginia. There’s still time this season.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 1, 2016 at 7:58 AM

          • We were in the same place Jan. 11. Alas…there was no snow and above freezing temps. I won’t be planning another for this year.

            Jim Ruebush

            February 1, 2016 at 8:02 AM

  6. Sometime in the past, I read that it’s sap that oozes from the frostweed. I finally took the time to explore the issue, and found this, from the Native Plant Society of Texas:

    “The first frost is when Frostweed performs a unique trick that is truly a marvel of nature. The stem splits and as the sap oozes out of the winged stem it freezes, and as it is freezing it curls into fascinating ribbons forming mini ice sculptures. The plant was named Frostweed because of this unique characteristic.”

    Clearly, water is a major component of the sap, and this Arkansas entry helps to clear it up a bit:

    “Frost flowers form on herbaceous (die back to the ground in winter) perennial (live through multiple growing seasons) plants that mature in late season. Their stems have porous pith that can provide for a steady supply of water and dissolved minerals from the roots.

    For the fragile frost flowers to form, the vascular system of a plant must be initially functioning. With the first hard freeze, expanding and freezing sap places increasing pressure on the epidermis (outer layer) of a plant so that it splits along the stem following the structure of plant fiber. When sap makes contact with frigid air, it freezes instantly into ice slivers along the stem. As the sap (ice) exits the plant, additional sap is drawn up the plant’s stem from the roots via capillary action.”

    There’s more information about the process in the article.


    February 1, 2016 at 9:07 AM

    • Right. It’s a complex process. At


      Bob Harms points out: “As has been noted since the earliest observers, the ice formation far exceeds [emphasis mine] the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.” Most of the extruded ice, then, is water rather than sap. At


      Harms gives a detailed description of the multi-part process.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 11:09 AM

      • What great articles. I was surprised to see marsh fleabane mentioned as a plant that might exhibit the behavior. And I was a little taken aback by his mention of xylem sap. I always had assumed sap was sap. Clearly, that isn’t so. For example, I found this comparison of phloem sap and xylem sap. Not only is the composition different, they behave differently.

        The more I thought about it, the more I realized the word “sap” always has evoked for me what we saw with our maple and cherry trees in Iowa, and what I’ve seen with Texas wild cherry and black walnuts: dripping, sugary threads, amber-like globs on trunks, and so on. For years, I’ve assumed sap was one thing, and water was another. It’s not that simple — although a sap might think so.

        Of course I checked out “sap” the word, and found that its meaning of “simpleton,” especially in Scottish and English schoolboy slang, probably was derived from the earlier sapskull (1735), or saphead (1798): from sap as a shortened form of sapwood “soft wood between the inner bark and the heartwood.”


        February 2, 2016 at 10:18 PM

        • It’s complicated, isn’t it? The article you linked to does a good job of explaining the differences between xylem and phloem, information that was new to me and that matters for crystallofolia. Each winter I think maybe I’ll find ice at the base of some marsh fleabane plants but then I forget to go looking for some when we get a freeze. I know where a convenient stand of frostweed is, but not a convenient one of marsh fleabane. Maybe next winter…

          As for sap the word, I think I knew German Saft ‘juice’ but never made the connection to English sap. I’m grateful for your second link. It also points out some interaction between the two etymologically unrelated saps that English has.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 2, 2016 at 11:47 PM

  7. Beautiful photos, I really appreciated the addition of your thoughts and observations.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    February 1, 2016 at 9:39 AM

    • And I appreciate readers’ comments and observations, which can add information I didn’t know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 11:10 AM

  8. I’ll never get tired of looking at frostweed. It is just too cool (haha 🙂 )


    February 1, 2016 at 10:05 AM

  9. Where are you going to in New Zealand? Napier, Hastings- Hawke’s Bay?????

    Raewyn's Photos

    February 1, 2016 at 12:10 PM

    • Today marks one year since the departure for our 2015 trip to NZ. If we make it back, perhaps in 2017, we’ll try to hit some of the places we missed, like your area, and stop by to say hello.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 12:17 PM

  10. On the basis of your second photo, I am imagining what a wonderful time you would have in Antarctica. I must try your one hand camera steadying technique.


    February 1, 2016 at 8:57 PM

    • I’ve seen several television documentaries recently about Antarctica, and although the glaciers and icebergs and the bluish color of the ice are visually attractive, I don’t do well on ships or in the cold. The fiords and glaciers on New Zealand’s South Island are a happy medium and a more likely destination for me.

      I still hold my camera with both hands whenever I can because there’s more stability that way. If you do need to free a hand to steady a subject, though, then everything you can do to stabilize your camera hand—like resting the camera against your forehead—is to your advantage.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 10:26 PM

      • I am not keen on ships or cold either. But nor am I keen on the sandflies of Fiordland. I am not an intrepid explorer. 😦


        February 2, 2016 at 2:54 AM

  11. That is fascinating stuff!


    February 1, 2016 at 9:22 PM

    • It’s my one little frozen contribution to those of you for whom snow and ice are commonplace for months on end.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 1, 2016 at 10:28 PM

  12. The sheen, shape and texture reminds me of stretching out or twisting toffee into shapes as a child. Beautiful and very interesting, Steve. It’s also provides a contrast to my 40C, 80% humidity summer day. 🙂


    February 2, 2016 at 12:40 AM

    • Toffee is something I never would have likened this to, but then I didn’t have that experience in my childhood the way you did in yours.

      Your last sentence sounds like a summer day in Texas. Of course we’re theoretically in winter here now, but the reality is that we hit 29°C a couple of days ago. That said, the forecast for the high beginning tomorrow and going for several days is only 16°C.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 6:24 AM

  13. Steve, I just went back and saw your NZ posts. I’m speechless (well nearly). There are so many magnificent pictures there – thank you so much. How wonderful to see our lovely country through your eyes. 😀


    February 2, 2016 at 2:46 AM

    • You’re quite welcome, Julie. You can tell from the pictures what a great time I had looking at nature in your country. I ended the trip well by finding abstract formations of rocks and shells at Little Manly Beach during my last 24 hours in New Zealand.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 2, 2016 at 6:38 AM

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