November: A Blooming Ghost of Ice

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Would you think of November as an ideal time to go out and pick some flowers? It’s true that most flowers, the kind that produce vibrant colors of red, purple, yellow, or orange, are gone by this time of year. But there’s one kind of blossom that does appear during the transition from fall to winter. It’s a rare treasure that makes finding it a special treat. The frost flower.

A frost flower is not a flower like a spring beauty, primrose, or aster, for example. It’s made of ice. As the first frost sneaks in on us, usually the second half of November, conditions can be right for a frost flower to “bloom”. Bundle up, because this is the best time to go hunting for them.

Frost flowers occur only after the first few hard freezes each year, which we usually experience in late fall. They are delicate and beautiful ribbons of ice crystals that form on the lower stems of certain species of Missouri plants. Even in the right conditions, a frost flower can be as elusive as a ghost. It only exists just until the air warms enough to melt it, or a ray of light from the sun causes its intricate structure to evaporate. That means you’ll have to go out early in the morning to seek one of these white ghosts before it vanishes.

Frost flowers are created as freezing temperatures rupture the stems of certain species of plants. Because the ground is still warm during this time, these plant root systems continue to send watery sap up through the stems. The sap oozes from cracks in the stems and freezes as soon as it hits the cold air. As more saps moves up, it pushes the freezing flow of ice crystals into folded, white ribbons that look like petals of a flower. It’s like squeezing out artistic patterns onto a cake with a frosting gun. Just as their crystalline cousin the snowflake, no two frost flowers are alike. Each one has its very own pattern, making every frost flower a one-of-a-kind “species”.

Plants that tend produce frost flowers include dittany, white crown beard, and stinkweed. Dittany is especially common in this area; look for it on dry, wooded slopes, borders of woods, and prairie plantings. For more information on these plants and where to find them, check the online field guide at MissouriConservation.org.

Some may believe November is a drab time of year with no treasures to seek in nature. But they haven’t been out on a chilly morning to discover the ghostly, white beauty of a frost flower displaying its fleeting sculpture on the forest floor. You can be one of the lucky people who does. But be sure to get up early, put on your coat, and beat the sun’s morning rays before these frosty ghosts vanish into the cold air.