The Pretty and Useful Ice Plant of Tenerife
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 seedling
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
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!