The Pretty and Useful Ice Plant of Tenerife

Updated on January 6, 2017

The Ice Plant

The Ice Plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) has been likened to the frozen form of water it is named after, and this is due to the tiny crystalline structures which cover its stems and leaves and glisten in the sunshine. The scientific name for this annual species from the Aizoaceae family also makes reference to this icy appearance when it calls it "crystallinum."

Ice Plant is a fast-growing creeping and succulent plant that is commonly found on the dry ground along the beaches of much of Tenerife's coastline. It is also found in the other Canary Islands and parts of Africa.

Ice Plant

Ice Plant in flower Photo by Steve Andrews
Ice Plant in flower Photo by Steve Andrews

Ice Plant seedling

Small Ice Plant Photo by Steve Andrews
Small Ice Plant Photo by Steve Andrews

A pretty wild flower

The Ice Plant has a tendency to go a pinkish or rosy-red colour in hot dry conditions and this, in itself, makes it an attractive plant. It often covers large expanses of ground with a red carpet.

It's flowers are very pretty too. They are a bit like large daisies and a creamy-white colour and close up in the afternoon. When a group of them is fully open they make a beautiful contrast against the reddish or green foliage around them that sparkles with the tiny crystals on it.

After flowering the Ice Plant forms many-seeded fruits that are actually edible and have been used for this purpose in times of scarcity, as have the leaves of the plant. The Ice Plant tends to die back, turning brown after it has finished flowering and dries up but the thousands of seeds in its fruits soon start a new generation when the rains return to the land.

Ice Plant is also found on waste ground and abandoned farmland but is mainly seen along the coasts and often right at the top of beaches.

The closely related M. nodiflorum is known as "Cosco" in Spanish, and is like the Ice Plant in miniature. It has the same tendency to go a rosy-red colour in hot and dry conditions and often grows in the same locations as its relative.

When these plants start growing in the rainy season they start off with green leaves and stems but the hot sun soon starts them going red, just like human sunbathers!

Ice Plant leaves

Ice Plant foliage Photo by Steve Andrews
Ice Plant foliage Photo by Steve Andrews

Soda production

The Ice Plant, which is also known as the Common Ice Plant and the Crystalline Ice Plant, is not native to Tenerife and the Canary Islands but was originally brought there and cultivated in the early 19th century for soda and soap production. This came to an end in the late part of the same century with the beginnings of commercial soap manufacturing processes but before this the Ice Plant was an excellent source of soda as sodium carbonate.

The plants were dried out and burned and as much as 40% of sodium carbonate could be extracted from the ashes of the plant. This was a very high proportion in comparison with other plants that could be used for this that could only yield a maximum of 20% of soda.

Most of the soda production from the Ice Plant was carried out on the neighbouring islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura where the climate is generally hotter and drier.

After this usage and cultivation of the plant was abandoned due to modern manufacturing processes that used chemically synthesised soda and no longer had a use for the natural source. The Ice Plant became forgotten about and was mainly regarded as a weed of coastal farmlands, however, it was later to become resurrected as a very useful plant species.

A medicinal plant

Many years later in 1994, the Ice Plant was rediscovered by Waltraud Marschke who was a nurse. She had started experimenting with Ice Plants at the Anthroposophical Centre on Lanzarote and found that the plant had astonishing medicinal properties too.

The fresh sap of the Ice Plant was found to be a great remedy for all manner of skin complaints and could be added to baths or extracted and made into ointments and creams. Skin diseases such as neurodermatitis and psoriasis could be treated with Ice Plant sap.

The Ice Plant has evolved a means of protecting itself against the harmful rays of the sun and can help heal damaged skins of humans too.

Ice Plant is not only a very pretty wild flower but a very useful one as well!


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    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      Yes, invasive plants and animals are a big problem worldwide but something has to be done to protect native species though I agree with you it can be sad seeing the invaders removed!

    • profile image

      Max Lofland 

      8 years ago

      The ice plant in Half moon Bay on the coast of Cal. has been designated as not native and therefore some areas such as Roosevelt Beach have had the beautiful ice plant removed physically by groups from Juvi detention. They were left in large clumps that later turned into gray mounds. Then so-called ntive plants were planted in its place. This now looks like a bunch of dead gray coverage that has replaced the annual flowering of the ice plant. The red and orange and yellow flowers are no longer here. I complained to the Rangers about this but they said that the State wants to have only native plants on the coastal dunes to protect the Snowy Plover birds, which are hardly ever observed in this area.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      I second that!

    • profile image


      8 years ago


      'Good work, Bardy.

      We should have a nice crop of the stuff after the imminent rains, so here's hoping the heavens open soon, to give us plenty of ice-plants and a nice snowy Mount Teide.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      PS, Patrick, I have just added a Wikipedia entry to the links and seems we are both right. Barilla is an Anglicized version of the Spanish and is also used for the soda obtained from the plant.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      I have only been to Chafiras once and that was long ago! lol Still in San Marcos. So basically the book is wrong is what you are saying, although that doesn't surprise me because they often are! Books are a major source of information for me and always have been, and in some cases the only source of info! Yes, I agree that in your sentence example it is better with other added but I think it is better without it in the sentence we are discussing because it had already been used once. Variety of wording is very important and repetition loses points! Also, as far as I know the Canary Islands are listed as Spain not Africa, although HubPages has them under Africa.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Chafiras, Tenerife.

      How now, Bard-features?

      Well, as you don't give your location I can only assume that you're in London.

      The next time you're back here just ask any of the many Spanish-speakers how it's spelt or pronounced, as "barilla" would sound quite different from "barrilla" in Spanish.

      You also seem to be struggling with the second point I was trying to make.

      Let me illustrate it another way:

      Imagine somebody said : "The sticky fleabane is found in Corsica and also in parts of Europe."

      Don't you think this sentence becomes clearer if we add the word "other" before "parts"?

      Corsica is a part of Europe just as the Canaries are a part of Africa.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      Patrick, according to my book The Flora of the Canary Islands by Hubert Moeller, "Barilla" is the correct spelling. It is the only one he uses and where I learned the name. I just checked in the book in case I had misread it but no. Also my sentence didn't need correcting. I meant in parts and this is correct. It doesn't grow all over the continent! Thanks for your comments though, and I am glad you know and like this little plant! Children from British School Tenerife were fascinated by it!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Realejos, Tenerife.

      Hey Bardman!

      How's life?

      It's good to see renewed interest in this lovely plant.

      I call it ice-lettuce or ice-plant.

      (The Spanish name you gave for it above is also wrong.

      It should be spelt "barrilla".)

      I first tried it as part of a delicious meal in the

      Casona hotel in Gweemar.

      It's a taste you either love or hate.

      I love it!

      (While I'm on the subject of tweaking your article, may I also correct the last sentence of your first paragraph above?:

      "It is also found on the other Canary Islands and other parts of Africa."

      It's just one extra word, but geographically restores order...)

      Oh, and your opinion that it is an exotic species here is not the last word.

      Many botanists believe it to have actually originated here in Macaronesia, and to have spread to the rest of Africa from these islands.

      The jury is still out, in any case.

      Keep up the good work, and I hope you enjoy the approaching chestnut season.

      Best wishes,

      Patrick MacHat-trick.

    • Tenerife Islander profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      Thank you, Peggy and Susan, for your comments!

    • Susan Starts Now profile image

      Susan Starts Now 

      8 years ago from California

      This hub makes me think about all the times I've stepped over this amazing plant on my way to the beach! Thanks for providing some very interesting reading.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Such an interesting hub! I have seen the beautiful ice plant growing along the coastline in California as far as seeing it in a natural setting. Had no idea that the seeds and leaves were edible nor that it had medicinal uses. Voted up, interesting and useful.


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