These delicate "flowers" sprout only in winter, but you won't find them catalogued in any herbal.
Scientific discoveries don't always burst into bloom overnight, accompanied by shouts of "eureka!" Some take years to crystallize in one's slumbering consciousness, before they finally flower. Passing through a rich hardwood bottomland one cold winter's morning in 1976, I noticed white reflections from icy formations on the forest floor, but my quest was for an eastern diamondback rattlesnake that I was radio-tracking, and so I paid them no further mind. A couple of winters later, when I chanced to see them again, their unique shape-like a taffy of ice, pulled into swirling loops and bows-seemed worth a photograph or two. By the time I returned with a camera, though, all had melted.
At the time, I was director of the Tall Timbers Research Station, nestled in the rolling red hills of north Florida, near Tallahassee. Other field biologists who worked and lived on the 2,800-acre site were just as puzzled by these icy wonders. None of us knew whether they were biological, geological, or meteorological phenomena, let alone when to expect them or where to look for them. And any chance to study them would be as fleeting as catching a whisper on the wind. I decided to plan ahead, but the next several winters came and went without any sightings.
Finally, on the night before Christmas, 1983, the stage was set. After an unusually warm autumn, without a single frost, the forecast warned of the overnight arrival of what (for Florida) would be a blustery cold front. Before sunup, I stole out of the house, camera in hand, determined to capture my elusive quarry.
About a mile from the house, in the same bottomland where I had seen them before, I panned my flashlight over the leaf litter. Each leaf sparkled with the fine frost crystals that blanketed the whole world that morning, but sadly . . . nothing out of the ordinary.
The ground crunched as I walked. I began to lose heart for the search, recalling fruitless winters past. …