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Plant Sci. 2011 Jan;180(1):149-56. doi: 10.1016/j.plantsci.2010.07.013.

Inflorescences of alpine cushion plants freeze autonomously and may survive subzero temperatures by supercooling.

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  • 1Institute of Botany, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck 6020, Austria.


Freezing patterns in the high alpine cushion plants Saxifraga bryoides, Saxifraga caesia, Saxifraga moschata and Silene acaulis were studied by infrared thermography at three reproductive stages (bud, anthesis, fruit development). The single reproductive shoots of a cushion froze independently in all four species at every reproductive stage. Ice formation caused lethal damage to the respective inflorescence. After ice nucleation, which occurred mainly in the stalk or the base of the reproductive shoot, ice propagated throughout that entire shoot, but not into neighboring shoots. However, anatomical ice barriers within cushions were not detected. The naturally occurring temperature gradient within the cushion appeared to interrupt ice propagation thermally. Consequently, every reproductive shoot needed an autonomous ice nucleation event to initiate freezing. Ice nucleation was not only influenced by minimum temperatures but also by the duration of exposure. At moderate subzero exposure temperatures (-4.3 to -7.7 °C) the number of frozen inflorescences increased exponentially. Due to efficient supercooling, single reproductive shoots remained unfrozen down to -17.4 °C (cooling rate 6 K h⁻¹). Hence, the observed freezing pattern may be advantageous for frost survival of individual inflorescences and reproductive success of high alpine cushion plants, when during episodic summer frosts damage can be avoided by supercooling.

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