A Season of Ice Flowers - 2007-08


Dr. James R. Carter, Professor Emeritus

Geography-Geology Department

Illinois State University, Normal, IL 61790


  I have a collection of web pages showing what are sometimes called Ice Flowers, Frost Flowers and Ice Ribbons growing on vertical plant stems.  Since first accidentally  finding such ice I have been able to find more on travels in neighboring states.  To increase my chances of seeing more ice flowers I tried to grow my own plants that support such ice formations.  I planted seeds of White Crownbeard, Verbesina virginica, and by golly this summer they took off.

The photo from early August shows the plants in two large black buckets and in the ground between the buckets.  The buckets are 17 inches / 42 cm in diameter for scale.  Behind the White Crownbeard plants are tall, purple ornamental grasses.

On the morning of November 7 we saw our first ice on the plant stems, above and right.  All of these photos are focused on the plants in the bucket that appears on the left in the photo above.  Note that the stems are still green and only a few of the leaves have turned brown.  Ice is seen extending very far up the stem on the left.  That ice soon melted.

The two photos above were taken on November 10.  The photo on the right was not taken from the same angle as all other photos in this sequence, was included because it shows how far up the stem the ice extended.  This is the last date that green leaves and stems are present.  This same morning wife saw some white patches in her flower garden.  Lo, we had ice formations on all 12 stems of Salvia.  In most cases the ice was quite small and rather inconspicuous but in a couple of cases the ice was quite abundant.  The larger displays of ice were about 5 inches / 12 cm in length.  This morning was the only day in which any sizeable blooms of ice occurred on the Salvia.  It was the Salvia with purple blossoms.  We are not certain which species it is.

The photos above show the ice formations on the mornings of November 16 and 22.  By the 16th the leaves had dropped from the stems.  The ice formations were quite thick but did not extend up the stems very far.  The ice seen on the stems on Nov 22 is rather weak and not very attractive.  The difference in the nature of the ice is the length of time the temperature was below freezing.  By 11:00PM on Nov 15 the ice on the stems was already quite abundant and it continued to growing during the night..  On the 22nd I did not anticipate any ice that morning because it had rained hard the day before and the temperature was not that cold at night.  But, it got cold enough for a little ice to form.  It did not last long.

These photos from Nov 23 and Nov 24 show abundant displays of ice.  By 6:00PM on the 22nd new ice was forming on the stems of these plants.  The photo on the left was taken at about 9:30AM, after more than 15 hours of sub-freezing temperatures.  The temperatures got into the high 40's Fahrenheit on the afternoon of Nov 23 and much of the ice melted, but not completely.  By 4:00PM the temperature was already below freezing but no new ice was readily evident.  But the next morning there was a great display of ice.  A close study of the surfaces shows that the ice of Nov 24 is somewhat glazed, from partially melted ice refreezing.  The 24th was quite warm and most of the ice melted; nothing was left clinging to the stems.

By 11:00PM new ice was forming and by Nov 25 there was a lovely display of ice.  This was a gray, frosty morning with a low cloud deck.  The temperature was about 28 and the roofs and grass was covered with frost.  By noon we had a light rain with occasional snow which greatly affected the ice formations.  By late afternoon on the 26th the ice formations had melted and there was only a dusting of ice and snow on the soil.  By 11:00PM new ice was seen on the stems and on the morning of Nov 27 there was this nice display of ice.  In terms of size and shape, the ice formations of Nov 25 and 27 are very similar.  The 27th was a relatively warm day and by 4:30PM all of the ice was gone, but by 7:00PM new ice was seen on the stems.

The temperatures got into the mid-20s on the night of Nov 27-28 but by 7:30AM on the 28th when this photo was taken the temperature had already risen to 38 F and the ice was melting.  During the day the temperatures went into the 50s and all of the ice melted.  It had been a very windy day but by late evening the sky was clearing.  At 9:00PM ice was forming on the stems.  By 7:30 on the morning of Nov 29 there was a good collection of ice again.  On this day I removed leaves and strips of bark from the buckets to better see the ice formations.  Much of the ice did not melt on this day.  By 6:00PM I could see new ice adding to what was already there.

At 8:00AM on Nov 30 there was considerably more ice than the afternoon before.  Note that no ice extends up the stems and that the cluster of ice at the front of the bucket has formed a couple of ribbons out to the side.  This is the first time I had seen such distinct ribbons, which I had seen elsewhere in previous years.  The 30th was a cool, windy day with only moderate melting of the ice.  The night was quite cold and I thought I could see new ice emerging by flashlight at 11:00PM.  At 8:00 the next morning the ice was much thicker than the afternoon before.  In this case the ice was more ribbon-like than had been seen earlier.  But, the freezing rain and subsequent thunderstorms destroyed all of these beautiful ribbons of ice.

But, by 8:00PM on Dec 2 new ice was forming on the stems and by 8:00AM on Dec 3 there was a good collection of ice.  Consistent with the last couple of days the ice does not extend up the stems but remains close to the ground.  In some cases I could see particles of dirt embedded in the ice.  During the day a little melting took place, particularly where direct sunlight fell on the ice.  At 9:00AM Dec. 4 the ice formations were well developed.  Much of the ice was in ribbon form.  In many cases it was possible to see flexures in some of the ribbons indicating the place where the ice stopped growing the day before and resumed the next night.  Check out the circular ribbon of ice in the back-left of the bucket for Dec. 4.

On Dec 5 we got a dusting of snow, which stuck to the ice formations.  Then freezing rain, more snow and colder temperatures which I thought would end the process for the year.  By Dec 14 the ice cover had mostly melted.  There was nothing left of the ice flowers in the buckets, with one exception, but on the stems on the ground between the buckets there was a small display of ice that appeared to be new.  It is logical that the ice would continue to form on the ground after it had stopped forming in the buckets, because soil and water elevated in the buckets will freeze before that in the ground.  The one exception was a small ice flower in the center of one bucket.  We then had a big snow that lasted for about a week. 

By Dec 22 the rains did away with the last of the snow and on the next morning with 15 degree temperatures there was a new collection of ice flowers on the stems in the ground.  The temperatures stayed below freezing all day and the ice continued to grow.  The flowers the next morning were distinctly larger.  Then that collection mostly melted, only to have a new display of ice flowers on Dec 26.  That ice melted over the next couple of days.  Then on Dec 29 there were new ice formations on the stems in the ground.  These were smaller than earlier ones but they were nice and well defined.  During the day these partially melted but the next morning there was new ice.  Again, partial melting during the day and more new ice on Dec 31. 

Much to my surprise this process has continued throughout the winter when the soil has not been frozen or covered with snow.  In early March 2008 there have been mornings when there has been little clusters of ice at the base of these plants. I will continue to look for ice flowers as the soil warms up.  I had assumed the plants would rupture after a couple of nights of ice formation but that did not happen.  And, I assumed this would only continue until the ground froze, but small ice formations show that the process is renewed when the ground thaws.

I also wondered how fast the ice grew.  I thought it might be quite explosive. 

This collection of photos from the night of Nov. 15 - 16 illustrates how fast the ice grows.  It is not explosive.  Obviously, I got out of bed a few times to get this series of shots.  Perhaps in the future I can have a better camera setup so all shots focus on the same things from the same distance.  For these shots I had to hold a flashlight in one hand to illuminate the ice so I knew where to point the camera and in the other hand take the photo.  But, hey, it worked.  I answered my question. 

Forrest Mims III in Texas was able to record the growth of such ice formations in time-lapse. It gives another perspective.

Thank goodness for the Internet and digital cameras for they let us exchange information about these attractive ice formations.  With time I hope to expand the web site to portray other views from this interesting month of ice.  Feel free to contact me at  jrcarter@ilstu.edu  if you see any ice of this nature in your early morning outings. See http://www.ilstu.edu/~jrcarter/ice/ for my master page on ice flowers / ice ribbons.



One of the many web pages of Dr. Jim Carter