If you take an early-morning walk in the late fall, you may come upon frost flowers. Frost flowers are intricate ice patterns near the base of plants, often looking like white poufs of cotton candy. They only occur for a fleeting amount of time, when we see a fall freeze.

When do frost flowers form?

Frost flowers may be one of nature’s best-kept (and shortest-lasting) secrets. They only happen for a short amount of time, typically in the late fall. Frost flowers show after the first few hard freezes, while the ground is still warm. The season is brief, and they disappear quickly on the day they occur, melting away as the air warms.

How do frost flowers form?

During a hard freeze, a plant’s stems are ruptured by the cold temperatures. However, the root system still sends up plant sap from the warmer ground below. As the sap pushes through the stem, it freezes on contact with the cold air. As more sap pushes through and freezes, it forces the freezing stream of white ice crystals into ornate patterns, some look like folded ribbons, puffs of cotton candy, or white thread.

Frost flower photos courtesy of Dot Soldovini of Cedar County, MO

Do all plants produce frost flowers?

The reason frost flowers are so rare is because not all Missouri plants make them. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, there are three plants that produce frost flowers; dittany, stinkweed (which is not widespread in Missouri) and white crownbeard. Scientists don’t know why only specific species produce them. Some believe it could be because their root systems are more active later in the year than other species, or their stems rupture in a special way to allow the sap to flow through. The fact frost flowers only appear on the stems of a few species makes it even more special to see the fleeting beauty of a frost flower.

This year frost flowers have been more plentiful. The weekend rains before the first hard freeze set us up with extra moisture for the plants to use.

Do you have pictures of frost flowers? We would love to see them, post them here.