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Some blooms are millennia in the making. Take, for example, this desert rose.
“Desert rose” refers to a favorite crystalline structure of gypsum that can be found just lying around in some deserts. The same mineral is ground into dust to make wallboard. Go ahead. Sniff your wall and smell the roses.
Odds are, you have witnessed crystallization in motion. Ice is a true mineral. Its crystals just don’t last very long at room temperature. Whether or not hexagonal snowflakes taste better than ice cubes, I leave to snowbirds.
This is what most people think of when considering crystals, and for good reason. Quartz (silicon and oxygen) is among the most common minerals on Earth. Our word “crystal” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “icy cold” because some proto-scientists theorized quartz to be supercooled ice. It is pretty cool, but not super cool.
The most common mineral is feldspar, which is the main ingredient of clay. Combine it with quartz and you get granite. Yeah, try keeping your countertop clean now that you know it’s crystallized dirt!
Removed from their original setting, these stalagmites seem to stretch upward. But they actually result from dripping water in a cave. The shapes are similar to the mud castles kids make at a beach by letting wet sand drip between their fingers. Mammoth Caverns and Carlsbad Caverns are two of many cave systems in the US that are well worth visiting to see entire rooms of sparkling quartz formed in this way.
Cavern stalactites occasionally form more intricate shapes, as seen in this helictite … which I thought vaguely resembles a dragon.
There are two ways of considering a mineral’s shape: its crystal structure and its crystal habit. The former refers to molecular structure and the latter to its visual appearance as a group of many crystals. Just think what interesting shapes gamers could build with a thousand 12-sided dice.
Pyrite (fool’s gold) is a common and relatively inexpensive mineral that takes a variety of forms. Sometimes it forms in perfect cubes. Other times it takes octahedral or dodecahedral shapes. Perhaps most intriguingly, in fossilization, its tiny crystals form in the patterns of whatever animal or plant it is replacing. Here you can see a lily pad.
Fossils are not typically very colorful. But this petrified wood, set on a decorative chair for visual effect, shows how elaborate fossilization can be.
Okenite crystals form strands so delicate that they look and even feel like white fur. Of course, crystals don’t bend like hairs, so you really shouldn’t pet them unless you have plenty to spare. Kids can get away with it.
Sometimes crystals form within other crystals, like these strands of titanium within quartz. Such specimens are called rutilated quartz.
Not every mineral forms the same way. Some grow by organic excretion, such as the calcium carbonate of shells. Don’t be discouraged if your mineral collection grows at a snail’s pace.
Drop a bunch of scallops to the bottom of a tropical sea and a layer of limestone might form. Pack trillions of little shells together and you get chalk. Then toddlers can spend a billion little lives on a smiley face to be erased a day later. Budding geologists, I’m sure.
How many microscopic organisms had to accumulate to form the White Cliffs of Dover? Never mind the plastic threads you are probably wearing (made from petroleum, which is similarly formed by organic deposits). Even inanimate elements of nature tell histories of life.Published in