The Buzz

Winter Solstice Frost Flowers

What is it about this time of year? Most of my friends love the hustle and bustle of Christmastime. I, however, not so much! There is so much to do – both at home and at work (see my previous blog post!) The days seem dark, dreary, and cold. Monochrome seems to rule the landscape: tan grass, brown leaves, chocolate tree trunks, gray pavement, pale sidewalks, and gray skies. Color seems to be a forgotten item except for a lone Holly tree and Holly berry. Blackbirds fly in huge groups like billowing smoke, swirling and screaming and chattering in messiness. The nights are getting longer and longer; and the days are shorter and shorter. I can not seem to get warm. I want to sleep all the time. I have no energy at this time of year. I looked at my calendar and was surprised: winter solstice arrives at 11:11am cst on Saturday, December 21 - most of you know this day as “The First Day of Winter.” To me, that always sounded like more darkness, more long nights, more drear, but that is incorrect. I thought the longest night of the year happened the night of Friday, December 20 as the shortest day of the year is actually the 21st-  that is when the sun is the lowest in the sky.  I calculated 9 hours and 47 minutes of darkness for both the night of the 20th, and the night of the 21st. So, hey, I give!

The “First Day of Winter” really heralds the coming of the sun, not the coming of darkness as I always thought. Each day after the 21st gets longer by just a tiny bit (about a minute). Each night gets shorter. Plants will begin breaking dormancy. Jonquils, crocus, muscari and other early bulbs will begin erupting, their greenery shoving forth from the frozen earth. Witch hazels bloom in the dark woods and the birds begin their early courtship: owls call in the deep of the night searching for a mate and warning off competitors. Within all the pre-winter solstice time, I search for the novel in the monotonous landscape… I found it: frost flowers!

Frost flowers are formed when the ground is warm enough for the plants’ roots to still be active, but the air temperature drops below freezing. Juices from the plant are expelled through slits in the stems forming fairy fancies: wisps of flash-frozen plant vapors curling like cotton candy or a landbound cloud fighting to go home again. Some look like cave formations, others still, resemble curling ram’s horns. What you see when you look at one is a personal experience. This may happen multiple times over the winter since our ground rarely freezes far down, but once the moisture is gone, so are the frost flowers. Touch one and it breaks. Breathe on one and it shatters. The air may remain freezing, but if the sun appears at all the frosty flower will evaporate leaving just a memory. This time of year I will take anything novel and magical. There are a few plants that “exhale” better than others. Barry McCalla gave these frost flower pictures to me to share with you:

On Friday, December 13, I found magic in the Herb Garden. Frost flowers peeked at me from the leaves. I couldn’t believe it! I guess I had never slowed down enough to notice them ever before. Here is the best photo I could get with my iphone (and frozen fingers):       

What is this plant? It is in the Dry Medicinals bed at the southwest corner. It is Dong-ling-cao (Isodon rubescens). What’s left of winter is not so dreary anymore – I have magic to seek and I have the knowledge that each day from the 21st on becomes longer and longer…   

References: John French of Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University (  gave me the information on Winter Solstice (and all the calculations involved). I am positive he gave me accurate information, if anyone finds anything that is not accurate, then it was lost in my brain translation. Abrams Planetarium publishes a way cool Sky Calendar that tells the stuff I had questions on, as well as meteor showers, eclipses and other astronomical coolnesses. Follow the link above for more info. I believe it is nice enough I am going to subscribe!

Posted by sherri mccalla at 3:00 PM


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