The Arabidopsis CBF proteins activate expression of a set of genes whose upstream regulatory sequences typically harbor one or more copies of the CRT/DRE low temperature cis-acting DNA regulatory element. Using domain swap experiments in both yeast and Arabidopsis we show that the NH3-terminal 115 amino acids direct CBF1 to target genes and the COOH-terminal 98 amino acids function in trans-activation. Mutational analysis through the COOH-terminus using truncation and alanine-substitution mutants in yeast revealed four motifs that contribute positively towards activation. Overexpression of mutants in plants support this conclusion and also indicated that disruption of a single motif did not seriously compromise activity unless combined with the disruption of a second. These motifs consist of clusters of hydrophobic residues which are delimited from one another by short stretches of Asp, Glu, Pro and other residues favoring the formation of loops. This structural pattern is conserved across plant taxa as revealed through alignment of Arabidopsis CBF1 with homologous sequences from a diverse array of plant species. Overexpression in plants of the CBF1 COOH-terminus as a fusion with the yeast GAL4 DNA binding domain also resulted in severe stunting of growth, a phenotype which was alleviated if the activation domain was rendered ineffective. Taken together these results suggest that high level overexpression of an active, CBF activation domain compromises plant growth.