Mass increases in raffinose family oligosaccharides (RFOs, alpha1,6-galactosyl extensions of sucrose) are well documented in the generative tissues of many plants upon cold acclimation, and they (i.e. mainly the two shortest RFO members, raffinose and stachyose) have been suggested as frost stress protectants. Our focus here was on the longer RFO members as they commonly occur in the frost-hardy evergreen labiate Ajuga reptans in its natural habitat, and accumulate to their highest concentrations in winter when the plant is faced with sub-zero temperatures. We examined the effects of RFO concentration and chain length on frost tolerance using excised leaves which accumulate long-chain RFOs under both cold and warm conditions, thereby uncoupling the acclimation temperature from RFO production. We demonstrated that frost tolerance in excised A. reptans leaves correlates positively with long-chain RFO accumulation under both acclimation temperatures. After 24 d post-excision in the warm, the leaves had increased their RFO concentrations (mainly long-chain RFOs) 22-fold to 78 mg g(-1) fresh weight, and decreased their EL(50) values (temperature at which 50% leakage occurred) from -10.5 to -24.5 degrees C, suggesting a protective role for these oligosaccharides in the natural frost tolerance of A. reptans.