Most of the ice plant you see in California is all the same species: Highway ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis). As the common name indicates, it has been widely planted in California along highways for soil stabilization and landscaping. It is native to South Africa and was originally brought to California in the early 1900s to stabilize soil along railroad tracks. It has large solitary flowers (2.5 to 6 inches in diameter) that are yellow or light pink.
If you happen to see an ice plant with a deep magenta flower, it is probably sea fig (Carpobrotus chilensis). Also from South Africa, this ice plant variant does not propagate as aggressively as highway ice plant and is much less prevalent. However, these two species hybridize freely.
Not a Good Neighbor
A walk along the ocean on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California shows a great case study of ice plant dominance. For about three miles, on the ocean side, you will see only one type of ground cover: Ice plant. It is surprising how homogeneous it is. Unless the land is part of The West Cliff Restoration Project or part of another replanting project by Gateway School across from Its Beach, you will not see anything else.
Ice plant is considered an invasive exotic species because it competes with and displaces native plants. Native plants provide far superior habitat for native animals and do a better job of slope stabilization. In fact, the main animal that highway ice plant typically shelters is the non-native black rat. In winter, water-heavy mats of ice plant slough off steep cliffs and into the ocean, taking precious topsoil with them.
Pickled Ice Plant
So, you might be wondering: Is there even one good thing about ice plant?
Yes. You can eat it! Carpobrotus is derived from the Greek words karpos, meaning fruit, and brotos, meaning edible. The fruits resemble figs somewhat (it is sometimes called Hottentot fig) and can be eaten raw, dried, cooked, pickled, or made into chutneys and preserves. The succulent leaves can be used in salads or as a substitute for the pickled cucumber. I have never eaten it and do not plan to give it to my kids, so if you decide to eat it, do so at your own risk.
The native plants that probably lived on the sea cliffs before European settlement would be a mix of low- lying shrubs (generally under six feet high) and herbaceous perennials and annuals, including buckwheat, sagebrush, yarrow, lupine, and coyote bush.
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This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- A Coast to Explore: Coastal Geology and Ecology of Central California by Miles O. Hayes and Jacqueline Michel. Pandion Books, 2010.
- Carpobrotus edulis, by Christien Malan and Alice Notten. Plantzafrica.com website.
- Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Stephen Facciola. Kampong Publications, 1998.
- Invasive Plants of California’s Wildland, by Marc Albert. California Invasive Plant Council website.
- Local Plant Communities. Santa Cruz Chapter California Native Plant Society.
- Restoring native beauty and diversity along West Cliff Drive, by Jackie Pascoe. Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 7, 2012.
- Personal communication with Frank Perry, Historian, Santa Cruz County, February 2012.