Ice Plant: An Introduction
Ice plants or Mesembryanthemum are succulent flowering plants native to South Africa. Ice plants are notable for their ability to survive in adverse conditions with low water availability and high temperatures. They have thick, fleshy leaves covered in hairs that trap moisture and reduce water loss. Their colorful flowers bloom profusely during the spring and summer months.
Ice plants are popular groundcovers and garden plants due to their [**easy care requirements**](<https://www.thespruce.com/growing-ice-plants-1902585>).They thrive in nutrient-poor, well-drained soil and full sun.Ice plants are **drought tolerant** once established and can survive long periods with little water. They **require infrequent watering**, especially during their dormant winter season. Ice plants are also resistant to most pests and diseases.
More comprehensive information and care guidelines can be read here.
The Thorny Question: Do Ice Plants Have Thorns?
While many ice plant varieties have pointy, sharp leaves and stems, true thorns are usually absent. The projection that makes ice plants appear spiny are actually specialized plantlets that form on the leaf margins. These plantlets allow the plant to reproduce asexually and spread efficiently.
The leaves and stems of ice plants have evolved to trap moisture efficiently from the scarce available water in their arid habitats. Many ice plants have fleshy, succulent leaves that are covered in fine hairs. These hairs help the leaves absorb and retain water for longer periods.
The pointed projections seen on ice plants perform two functions:
- They help the plant propagate through the plantlets that form at their tips. When these plantlets drop off the parent plant, they can develop roots and grow into new plants.
- Their sharp edges act as a physical deterrent to herbivorous animals, protecting the plant without the need for true thorns.
Key differences between thorns and ice plant projections:
|Thorns||Ice Plant Projections|
|Made up of hard, woody tissue||Soft and fleshy in composition|
|Single purpose of defense||Serve dual purposes of defense and asexual reproduction|
|Present at birth||Develop later in the plant’s life|
|Cannot generate new plants||Release plantlets that root and grow into new plants|
In summary, while ice plants have many spiny and sharp structures, they lack true woody thorns. The pointed projections help the plants propagate, deter herbivory and reduce water loss – crucial adaptations for their native arid climate.
Understanding Ice Plant Anatomy
Ice plants exhibit several anatomical adaptations that allow them to thrive in arid conditions. The most notable of these features are:
Succulent leaves and stems: Ice plant tissues are fleshy and thick due to the presence of water-storing cells. This succulence helps the plants retain water for longer periods between rainfalls.
Thick leaf hairs: The leaves of most ice plants are covered in small hairs that trap moisture from humid air or fog. The hairs also reduce water loss by creating a boundary layer that hampers transpiration.
Crassulacean acid metabolism: Ice plants utilize CAM photosynthesis, a water-saving adaptation where the stomata remain closed during the day and open at night to uptake carbon dioxide. This further reduces water loss.
Pointed projections: The pointed structures on ice plant leaves and stems are in fact soft, fleshy plantlets that form as a means of asexual reproduction. When these plantlets drop off, they root and develop into new plants.
Shallow root system: Ice plants have a sparse network of roots near the soil surface. This allows the plants to rapidly absorb any water that becomes available through rains or irrigation.
The key anatomical features that allow ice plants to survive arid conditions with scarce water are their succulent tissues, thick leaf hairs, CAM photosynthesis and shallow but efficient root systems. Although the plantlets and projections on their leaves appear sharp and thorny, they are actually soft and fleshy in texture – lacking the hard, woody tissue found in true thorns. These structures serve primarily as a means of reproduction and defense against herbivores.
In summary, ice plants exhibit a suite of anatomical adaptations centered around water conservation and efficient utilization of the little water available in their natural habitats. Their spiky appearance helps deter herbivory but is not related to their ability to survive in arid conditions.
Exploring Ice Plant Varieties
There are many different varieties of ice plants available to homeowners and gardeners. Ice plant varieties differ in terms of:
Leaf shape and size: Common leaf shapes include oval, rounded, segmented and lance-shaped. Leaf sizes range from less than an inch to over 4 inches long.
Growth habit: Some varieties remain low-growing groundcovers while others become more upright bushes.
Flower color: Ice plants typically feature pink, purple or white flowers but some varieties boast red, yellow or orange blooms.
Prominence of projections: While none have true thorns, some varieties form larger fleshy projections on their leaves and stems compared to others.
Some popular ice plant varieties include:
Lampranthus spectabilis: Features rounded oval leaves and trailing growth habit. Bears bright pink flowers.
*Delosperma cooperi: Also known as ‘Hardy Ice Plant’. Forms rounded mounds and produces an abundance of yellow, orange or white flowers.
Conicosia pugioniformis: Native to Madagascar. characterized by gray-green lance-shaped leaves and tall upright growth form. Blooms with pink flowers.
‘Silver Mist’: Popular cultivar with gray-green leaves edged in silver. Produces clusters of bright pink or purple flowers.
In general, ice plant varieties best suited as groundcovers feature a trailing growth habit and smaller leaves while more upright varieties function better as border plants or in raised beds. Flower color is primarily an aesthetic choice based on gardeners’ preferences.
When selecting an ice plant variety, consider its mature size, flower color, growth habit and how prominently spiked or toothed the leaves are based on the location and purpose in the landscape. While many ice plant varieties appear sharp and spiky, none actually possess true woody thorns.
Cultivating and Caring for Thornless Ice Plants
Ice plants are easy to grow once a few key requirements are met:
Well-drained soil: Ice plants prefer sandy,gravelly soils that drain quickly. Add organic matter and sand to clay-heavy soil to improve drainage.
Full sun: Ice plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day to thrive. They will tolerate some shade but flower less prolifically.
Infrequent watering: Water ice plants sparingly,especially in their winter dormant period. Apply water only when the top 1-2 inches of soil is dry. Overwatering will kill the plants.
Appropriate pH: Ice plants grow best in slightly acidic soils with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Add lime if the soil pH is lower.
Few fertilizer needs: Ice plants require very little fertilizing,especially when grown in nutrient-poor conditions. Apply balanced, slow-release fertilizer 1-2 times per year in spring and fall.
Pest and disease resistance: Once established, ice plants are generally resistant to most common pests and diseases. Mealybugs,spider mites and aphids may infest the plants under certain conditions.
Pruning: Prune leggy growth or straggly stems to shape and condense ice plants. Pruning also stimulates bud growth and promotes flowering. Prune after flowering in spring or early summer.
Containment measures: Ice plants can spread rapidly and become invasive. Use barriers, containers or raised beds to contain aggressive spreading varieties.
In summary, proper drainage, ample sun exposure and infrequent watering after establishment are the main keys to successfully cultivating ice plants. While low-maintenance overall, occasional pruning and fertilizing is needed to promote optimal growth and flowering. Very few pest or disease issues typically arise with ice plants grown under suitable conditions. Their thornless nature and easy care requirements make them a good choice for xeriscaping and drought-tolerant gardens.
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