The Best Thing to Do with Ice Plant in California? Pickle it!

A close up view of highway ice plant or Carpobrotus edulis.
A close-up view of the highway ice plant. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

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.

Benches on West Cliff Drive completely surrounded by ice plant.
Benches on West Cliff Drive completely surrounded by ice plant. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

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.

An example of ice plant-covered steep slopes that can sluff.
An example of ice plant-covered steep slopes that can slough off into the ocean. Photo: Julia Gaudinski/Mobile Ranger

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.

Native Plants

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.

Native coastal sage scrub vegetation at 3-Mile Beach (3 miles north of Santa Cruz). Coast buckwheat can be seen in the bottom left, dudleya are the yellow flowers in the center and California sagebrush dominates the back, right. Picture courtesy of and © Jackie Pascoe.
Native coastal sage scrub vegetation at Three Mile Beach (three miles north of Santa Cruz). Coast buckwheat can be seen at the bottom left. Dudleya are the yellow flowers in the center, and California sagebrush dominates the back right. Photo: Courtesy of and © Jackie Pascoe
A post card showing West Cliff Drive circa 1920s. These plants probably are not native to California either, but it shows the plants at least pre-ice plant! Image courtesy of Frank Perry.
A postcard showing West Cliff Drive circa 1920s. These plants probably are not native to California either, but it shows the vegetation before it became dominated by ice plants. Image: Courtesy of Frank Perry

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
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About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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