Finding Frost Flowers

Killing frost is often thought of only for the damage it does. The gardens devastated. The fall leaves tumbling to the ground. But killing frost, at least the first big one, can bring a special treat for those who go out to look.

There have been several mornings in the mid twenties. These weren’t cold enough for these flowers. Then there came a thirteen degree morning. This was it.

I struggled into the coveralls and jacket, finished the milking and headed for the woods. There among the dry brown fallen leaves I found the frost flowers.

Frost flowers are not really flowers. They are sheets of ice erupting from plant stems in long ribbons that curl and cling to the stems.

frost flower

These ice ribbons are long.

Frost flowers are extremely delicate. They last only as long as the temperature stays below freezing and the sun doesn’t hit them. Often they appear a single morning of a fall.

frost flower

Notice how the ice pushes out from the stem

Only a few plants produce frost flowers. A stem has to have plenty of water in it. Most stems have dried out. Dittany is fairly reliable for frost flowers.

frost flower

Dittany is a wild mint. It grows scattered in open woods. Lovely groups of tubular lavender flowers appear around August and last into the fall.

Here dittany prefers a west facing slope. It seems to prefer drier areas of the hills. It likes growing near oaks and hickories.

frost flower

The ice ribbon varies in thickness so each ribbon is banded.

Dittany will grow in flower gardens as I know someone who had a plant appear one year. She enjoys the lovely plant.

This is a lovely plant. It can reach a foot high with numerous branches. All the branches are thin and wiry. Light green opposite leaves are wide and round at the base tapering to a point in an inch. Like many mints, the plant has a spicy pleasant odor.

In the fall when other plants are busy putting their moisture reserves down into their roots or are dying leaving their stems to dry out, dittany keeps trying to grow with juicy stems. A perfect recipe for frost flowers.

frost flower

Wooded slopes don’t seem to get as cold as the pastures so those killing frosts don’t do much damage there. When the temperature drops to the teens, the slopes freeze.

Water expands when it freezes. The water in those juicy stems starts to freeze and splits the stems. Ice pushes its way out in ribbons of varying width.

frost flower

Walking over the hills in search of frost flowers, I scan the area for the dittany plants. As I near a plant I peer down to the stem base often hidden under dry leaves for a gleam of white.

Once a frost flower is spotted, I remove the dry leaves carefully. Hitting the flower will shatter it. The ice is rarely attached to the overlying leaves.

frost flower

Taking pictures of frost flowers can be challenging. Ice is very reflective and will glare. I underexpose and try to keep the frost flowers in the shade.

These delicate treats of fall may appear once more on another frosty morning. There won’t be as many, if they do appear.

frost flower

A touch of sun and frost flowers begin to disappear.

For those who miss them this year, take some time to look for dittany late next summer. Then you will know where to go look for frost flowers when that first really cold fall morning arrives.