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Flowers and Ribbons of Ice

Beautiful, gravity-defying structures can form when water freezes under the right conditions

James R. Carter

2013-09CarterF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDragging yourself out of a warm bed in the early hours of a wintry morning to go for a hike in the woods: It’s not an easy thing for some to do, but the visual treasures that await could be well worth the effort. If the weather conditions and the local flora are just right, you might come across fleeting, delicate frozen formations sprouting from certain plant stems, literally a garden of ice.

I first came across such natural ice sculptures in December 2003 while hiking in Tennessee. I couldn’t explain what I saw until I did a Web search, but a year later I found similar frozen formations, in a different area and associated with another plant. In November 2005 I drove through northern Kentucky on a frosty morning, alert to the possibility of additional sightings. My first one turned out to be a misperception—just plastic garbage bags—but the second proved to be genuine ice on plant stems. This time I saw it along the side of the road, where the plants had been mowed. Swirling formations of ice radiated out in all directions from the cut, vertical stems. I continued to see these features for the next few hours as I drove south through Kentucky, indicating that the whole area had the necessary species of plant and the right combination of temperatures and moisture. I kept exploring to learn more about the exact factors necessary to create these visual wonders. A few days later in central Virginia, on a subfreezing morning following a day of rain, I ventured out to look for more of the ice blooms. Along a dirt road I found them in three forms: ribbons of ice at the base of small plant stems, needles of ice pushing up a thin layer of soil, and a rod of ice extending up about 5 centimeters from the ground. The next year I went back to the location of my first sighting in Tennessee and gathered seeds from one of the ice-producing plants, called white crownbeard (Verbesinia virginica), to take back to my yard in Illinois. The following winter I had ice flowers of my own, making it much easier to observe the formation process and begin decoding the conditions behind it.

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