The Frost Plant of Russiaby@scientificamerican

The Frost Plant of Russia

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To the Editor of the Scientific American: Mr. Charles Williams, of Winoa, Ohio, has written a letter to that veteran botanist, Humphrey Marshall, of Chester county, Pa., on the subject of the abovenamed plant, and my opinion concerning it has been asked for. Seeds of this plant were obtained by citizens of Boston, who had snow brought from the White Mountains and from the coast of Labrador, and who stated that they have "now the most unbounded satisfaction and pleasure of announcing that all signs are favorable to the realization of their fondest hopes." This wonderful plant, it seems, was found amid the perpetual snows of the northern boundaries of Siberia, in 1863, by Count Swinoskoff, the eminent Russian botanist, and it was by him cultivated at St. Petersburgh. The account sent me is very vague, and is evidently not from the pen of a botanist. It is stated that it comes forth on the first day of the year, grows to the height of three feet, and flowers on the third day. It continues in bloom for twenty-four hours, then dissolves itself, being of the finest snow; it has a stalk one inch in diameter, and leaves, three in number, 1½ inches wide, covered with infinitesimal frost or snow cones. The flower is of the shape of a star, with petals 3 inches long and ½ inch wide at the broadest part, forming a basketwork of frost. The seeds are like a pin's head. This is about all that can be gleaned from the description, and is by no means satisfactory. Allow me to present my humble views of an analogous discovery of frostwork on December 6, 1856, in a sandy loam in Chester county, Pa., near the Paoli monument. In the Horticultural Journal of Philadelphia, then edited by J. Jay Smith (New Series, volume vii., page 73, 1857), an account was published of my observations then. These I have since more fully confirmed. The common dittany (cunila Mariana) is frequently met with in December, with the base of the stem surrounded with shellwork of ice, of a pearly whiteness. Dr. Darlington, in his "Flora Cestrica" published in 1853, page 199, under the article cunila, observes: "In the beginning of winter, after a rain, very curious ribbons of ice may be observed, attached to the base of the stems, produced, I presume, by the moisture of the earth rising in the dead stems by capillary attraction, and then being gradually forced out horizontally, through a slit, by the process of freezing. The same phenomenon has been observed in other plants. See observations on helianthemum, page 27." Had the doctor given a more extended investigation, I fancy he would have agreed with me as to the cause. I found hundreds of diversified specimens. I am not aware that it was after a rain, but I took up a number of the plants, and always found a vigorous scaly root bud, undergoing development at this early season under ground, to produce a new stem the following spring. I came to the conclusion that, as the temperature was below freezing and snow was on the ground, the expanding bud, in close proximity to the surface, gave out sufficient caloric or warmth to generate vapor from the moist soil. This vapor rising around the stem of the plant, and attracted by it, becomes congealed into what we term hoar-frost, in numerous forms; some like shellwork, others like tulips, with radiated petals, variously contorted, and often as symmetrical as snowflake crystals.

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