While taking a walk last December, I noticed a strange looking icy, foam-like material that appeared to be “growing” near the tree line. Upon further investigation, they were some type of ice formations. Although I did not know it at the time, I had stumbled upon was a patch of frost flowers, which are also called ice fringes, ice ribbons, or rabbit ice. They can take on strange, beautiful shapes.
With my interest piqued, I tried to find more information about this phenomenon but unfortunately there has not been a lot research done in this area. Which proves one thing, nature can be magical!
Frost flowers are formed in a process called ice segregation. They develop when air temperatures are freezing but the soil is moist and still warm enough that the plant is still functioning and active. Stems that have already been killed due to freeze will not work.
Nutrients and water are pushed up from the root system and into the upper portion of the plant. As the flow goes upward, it expands due to colder temperatures above the ground. When this happens, the ice crystals are pushed out the side of the stems. Sometimes, when the ice cuts a slit in the stem, ribbons are formed. Other times, the stem splits open, forming a petal-like structure. Each flower is unique because it depends on where the slits are in the stem and the pressure of the fluid in the plant.
If in a shaded, protected location, ice crystals can continue to form as long as the conditions are correct. In sunlight, these creations melt away quickly.
Not every plant can produce frost flowers. It is likely due to the plant’s pore space size on the stem or water permeability. They are most often found in low lying sunny areas along streams or roadside ditches. Some plants you may find associated with this phenomenon on ironweed, wingsteam, dittany or tickweed.
Submitted by Amanda Sears, Agent for Horticulture, Madison County Cooperative Extension Service