Ice Writings in 19th and early 20th Centuries    

Dr. James R. Carter, Professor Emeritus

Geography-Geology Department

Illinois State University, Normal IL 61790-4400


We know about ice flowers on plant stems, hair ice on pieces of dead wood, needle ice growing up from the soil and pebble ice on small rocks.  People observe these in nature, take good photos and share them on the Internet.  But, we are not the first to have observed such interesting phenomena and write about them. 

We now know these are products of ice segregation - the movement of water within a medium to the presence of ice, where that water freezes and adds to the ice.  This process had not been identified a century ago but still people appreciated the unique nature of such phenomena and speculated on its formation.

In 1988 D. W. Lawler published “A Bibliography of Needle Ice” in Cold Regions Science and Technology (15: 295-310).  There are 267 items in his compilation going back to 1824.  In these many references are works that address each of these types of ice formations.  In some cases, the quality of the observations, experiments, and writing deserves recognition.  Here are some highlights I gained from Lawler and other sources.

Stories from the 19th Century

Of particular note was the letter of J. F. W. Herschel dated January 12, 1833, in Philosophical Magazine, 3rd series, 110-111, entitled: "Notice of a remarkable Deposition of Ice around the decaying Stems of Vegetables during Frost."  He wrote that years before he had found ice ". . . to incrust the stalks in a singular manner in voluminous friable masses, which looked as if they had been squeezed, while soft, through cracks in the stems."  Then on January 11 he found a similar formation of ice which he described as ". . . seemed to emanate in a kind of riband- or frill-shaped wavy excrescence, -- as if protruded in a soft state from the interior of the stem, from longitudinal fissures in its sides, . . . the structure of the ribands was fibrous, like that of the fibrous variety of gypsum, presenting a glossy silky surface"  He goes on to make additional observations about the ice and the atmospheric conditions when these formed, all consistent with what I have observed more than a century and a half later.  He ends with "What share the physiological functions of the plant may have in the phaenomenon, or whether it be connected with the vitality of the stem at all, it is for botanists to decide."  He included three sketches of the ice on stems.

Herschel’s paper prompted Professor Rigaud of Oxford to recall his observation in 1821 of similar ice formations on a recently built stone wall.  “The portions of the ice (with a single exception) were formed at the edges of the stones, -- indifferently at the tops, to bottoms, or the sides, but the curvature was uniformly turned inward from the mortar itself, in which case the threads of ice were formed in an horizontal line, and I think (for of this I made no memorandum) parallel to the layer of the mortar.”  Philosophical Magazine, Feb. 2, 1833, 190-191.

In the same journal (The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Third Series) of May 1850, 329-342, John LeConte, M.D., of the University of Georgia wrote about many instances of observing frost flowers and needle ice in Georgia.  He quotes liberally from Hershel (1833), for he appreciated the words as I do.  LeConte also produced some lovely descriptions such as ". . . the traveler who passes along the level roads of this region soon after sunrise cannot fail to be struck with the remarkable accumulations of voluminous friable masses of semi-pellucid ice around the footstalks of the Pluchea which grow along the road-side ditches.  At a distance they present an appearance resembling locks of cotton-wool, varying from four to five inches in diameter, placed around the roots of plants; and when numerous the effect is striking and beautiful." p. 330.  He observes that in some cases ice had formed on the same plant on consecutive nights "when the wood was not rifted." p. 332.  He also makes observations about what we now call needle ice and argues "that both of the phaenomena must be referred to the same cause.  If we admit an identity of cause in the two cases, it is obvious that it must be purely physical . . ." p. 336.

In 1880, the Duke of Argyll writing in the January 22 issue of Nature described such ice formations (Hair Ice) and asked for a scientific explanation of this phenomenon.  In the January 29 issue three persons weighed in with opinions based on what they had seen.  In the February 19 issue the Duke responded.  In the February 26 issue one of the earlier writers and a new writer offer their suggestions based on ice formations they have seen.  All of these contributors were from what we now call Great Britain.  In the April 22 issue Wm. LeRoy Broun from Vanderbilt University describes the growth of needle ice and compares it to the ice formations observed in Europe.  Broun does not reference LeConte who was also from the southeastern U.S.

A report on the meeting of the Physical Society in Berlin, in the March 13, 1884, issue of Nature includes a discussion from Prof. Schwalbe on flowers growing from rotten twigs lying on the ground as ". . . ice-excrescences of soft, brilliant, asbestine appearance, and uncommonly delicate to the touch. . . ."  Prof. Schwalbe brought some of these withered and rotten twigs with him to Berlin, and it was in his power to produce on them at any time the phenomenon just described.  For this purpose all that was needed was thoroughly to moisten the twig, in such a manner, however, that no water dropped off, and then to let it cool slowly in a cold preparation.  Ice-excrescences also appeared of themselves on twigs lying in the garden whenever the temperature fell below 0 degree C. in the night." (p. 472)  He made reference to the explanations of LeConte, 1850.  We now know this to be Hair Ice, Haareis.   

In a later editions of Nature there were a series of letters reporting on ice formations and reacting to earlier letters.  Most of these reports relate to what was obviously needle ice but in the January 1, 1885 issue B. Woodd Smith tells of a friend who “. . . picked up a piece of a dead beech-branch which was covered with filamentous ice, such as is described by the Duke of Argyll and others.”  This person found the ice reappeared again the next morning when it was left out over night.  (p. 194). 

I marvel at the observations and vocabulary of these authors, writing more than 120 years ago. Do we know more about frost flowers and needle ice than they did back then?  We certainly know more about needle ice, as evidenced by the many articles cited in Lawler's bibliography.  Among these papers are reports of scientists growing needle ice and controlling the rate of growth. 

Lester F. Ward, “Frost freaks of the dittany,” The Botanical Gazette, 1893, observed these near Accotink, VA.  He has stylized drawings of the stems and ice ribbons.  He writes that the article belongs in a botanical journal because of all of the plants in the area the ice formations occurred only on Cunila Mariana, Dittany.  He and a colleague tasted the ice and inferred from this that the water was not “. . . distinguishable from pure distilled water . . .” p. 185  Ward said he was able to find no records of others observing this phenomenon.  He also wrote: “It is possible that this is the first time that Cunila Mariana has been discovered to be a frost-weed.  At the time the discovery was made it had quite escaped my memory that Helianthemum Canadense behaves in a similar way.” P. 185. 

Ward references Gray’s Manual, 1848, as describing such ice formations on Helianthemum Canadense, or frostweed.  As similar statement appears in the Eighth Edition of Gray’s Manual of Botany, 1970, on p. 1017 and notes that Helianthemum Bicknellii is also called frostweed. 

Ward also refers to the book Sharp Eyes by Wm. Hamilton Gibson, dated 1892.  I got to see the 1904 edition of this delightfully illustrated work, where Gibson writes about what can be seen in nature every week during the year.  The November 3d entry is The Frost-Flower as it appears on Helianthemum Canadense.  He notes it has three distinct types of blossoms during the year.  In November “the flower from which the plant is named, but which few people ever see.  Almost any morning during the past week, after a severe frost, would have shown it to us among the stubble where the plants are known to grow, glistening like specks of white quartz down among the blown herbage close to the base of the stem.  It is a flower of ice crystal of purest white which shoots from the stem, bursting the bark asunder, and fashioned into all sorts of whimsical feathery curls and flanges and ridges.  It is often quite small, but sometimes attains three inches in height and an inch or more in width.  It is said to be a crystallization of the sap of the plant, but the size of the crystal is often out of all proportion to the possible amount of sap within the stem, and suggests the possibility that the stem may draw extra moisture from the soil for this special occasion.  The frost-flower is well named.”  The sketch accompanying this text shows a blossom of ice in one image overlaid on top of the plant in full bloom in summer. 

And in the Early 20th Century

Prof. Cleveland Abbe, “Ice Columns in Gravelly Soil,” Monthly Weather Review, 1905, 157-8, writes about needle ice and references LeConte, 1850.  He notes that “Only once have I seen the corresponding phenomenon of a thin ice sheet of parallel ice columns exuding from a vertical crevice in the bark of a tree, many beautiful examples of which are given by Professor LeConte and Sir John Herschel.”  Abbe rejects the explanation of LeConte and offers his own suppositions.  He calls for someone to repeat the process in the physical laboratory.  There is a concluding remark “This explanation of the growth of hollow columns of ice in gravelly soil applies with slight changes to the hollow stems and plates of snow crystals.  The whole subject of the growth of crystalline forms needs elucidation.” p. 158. 

Then I found Coblentz, “The Exudation of Ice from Stems of Plants” in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, 589-621, Nov 1914.  Coblentz was a physicist working for the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC.  In 1913 he found some frost flowers in Rock Creek Park and started observing what he saw.  He systematically made observations, took notes, and carried out many experiments with the help of colleagues.  He found that in the mix of plants in the rocky slopes, the ice flowers occurred only on Cunila mariana, or Dittany.  He cut off stems and inserted them in moist soil, test tubes and crucibles.  He reported on how rapidly water moved up the dry stems of Dittany and was able to grow ice ribbons, what he also called ice fringes and ice filaments.  He showed that the roots of the plant are not necessary for the formation of ice, nor is the outer bark. He applied different treatments to the stems and showed that the water for the ice comes from within the stem and is not deposited from the air. He noted one ice flower weighed 5 grams and observed that many were of this size. 

Alfred Wegener, most known for his Continental Drift theory, wrote about Haareis, or Hair Ice, in 1918, Haareis auf morschem Holz, Die Naturwissenschaften, 6, jahrgang, Heft 41, s. 598-601.   He based this work on his observations the previous two winters on ice found on dead wood in two different places in Germany.  He assumed this ice was associated with a fungus evident on the dead wood, but he was not able to identify the fungus. 

In 1933 Libbey had a 4-paragraph description entitled Ice Ribbons at Crater Lake published in Nature Notes at Crater Lake.   "Have you ever seen the frosted white ice ribbons with which Jack Frost adorns the stems of plants and weeds on frosty mornings? Ice ribbons are prone to occur in the chill of early winter when the ground is neither frozen nor covered with snow. The Cunila - Cunila origanoides - found up and down the Appalachian highland system is the favorite plant on which the ribbons form. Frequently similar ice ribbons have been observed growing from the stems of dead plants and weeds on the frosty slopes of the "hill" of our central plateaus."  A nice drawing accompanies the words. 

For years I assume she was talking about Ice Flowers but after learning more about Hair Ice and rereading her few paragraphs I realize she was talking about what we now know is Hair Ice and is comparing it to Ice Flowers she knew back east. We now know both are the products of Ice Segregation. And, Hair Ice is found in the Pacific Northwest. 

In Conclusion

My major interest has been in Ice Flowers, and I have not dug with great depth into other types of ice and their displays.  It is my impression that with World War II considerable attention was given to role of ice as it related to working and moving in areas where the soil was frozen at times or permanently.  Thus, needle ice in its many forms has become an engineering and environmental subject. 

Needle Ice has also been identified as a major force in geomorphology - the science focusing on landforms.  In the late 1960s Sam Outcalt did his Ph.D. dissertation on Needle Ice.  Needle ice went beyond being an item recognized for its inherent beauty. 

This is my perspective on the early work on the visual products of Ice Segregation.  Of course, my insights are based on the literature found in the English-speaking world, with at least one item from German writings. 

With digital cameras and the Internet, it is a new world in terms of what we can record and share.  But the displays of ice must be the same as seen hundreds and probably thousands of years ago. 

I am open to hear of additional stories from the past that others know about.  Feel free to contact me at  [email protected]    

For my master page on ice see