Drought Tolerant Plants: Ice Plants

Among the various strategies plants have for tolerating drought, succulence is easily one of the most common and most successful. A recent article in the new open source journal, Plants People Planet, explores the world of succulent plants, commenting on, among other things, their evolution and extent. At least 83 plant families contain succulent species, and as many as 3-5% of flowering plants are considered succulents.

Succulence involves the storage of water in the cells of one or more plant organs (i.e. roots, stems, or leaves) as a mechanism for surviving drought. One way that succulent species differ is the location and nature of this storage. Some succulents are all cell succulents, meaning that the cells involved in storing water are also involved in carrying out photosynthesis. Other succulents are storage succulents. They have specific cells called hydrenchyma designed for storing water. These cells are non-photosynthetic.

Plants in the family Aizoaceae are storage succulents. Commonly known as the ice plant or carpet weed family, this family consists of hundreds of species and is mainly distributed throughout a region of South Africa known as Succulent Karoo. Species in this family earn the name ice plant thanks to numerous bladder-like cells or hairs that cover their leaves and stems causing them to sparkle or glimmer in the light. Aizoaceae diversity is incredible, and while this post focuses mainly on a few select species, it’s worth browsing through the profiles listed on World of Succulents to appreciate the breadth of forms these plants can take.

common ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum)

Among many interesting features that plants in this family possess, one particularly fun thing to note is that their flowers, which are unapologetically showy, lack true petals. Instead, what appear as a series of flat, thin petals encircling the center of the flower are actually modified stamens. They act as petals – drawing in pollinators with their bright colors – so calling them petals is acceptable, just not entirely accurate. Another fun fact is that seed pods of plants in Aizoaceae are often hygrochastic – upon getting wet they burst open and expel their seeds.

The photosynthetic pathway in succulents is generally different compared to other plants. Instead of the common C3 pathway, succulents use a pathway called CAM, or Crassulacean Acid Metabolism. CAM photosynthesis is similar to C4 photosynthesis – another photosynthetic pathway common among drought tolerant plants – in that it uses PEP carboxylase instead of rubisco to fix carbon and then sends it to a separate cell to be converted into sugars. In C4 photosynthesis, this whole process happens during the day. CAM photosynthesis differs in that it fixes carbon during the night and then sends it to another cell to be converted into sugars during the day. Fixing carbon at night is a way to avoid the water loss that occurs when collecting carbon dioxide during the daytime.

In discussing Aizoaceae, this is an important consideration because, unlike many other succulents, plants in this family don’t rely solely on CAM photosynthesis, but can instead switch back and forth between C3 and CAM. The ability to do this is likely because they are storage succulents rather than all cell succulents, and because they can do this, they are very efficient carbon fixers.

flowers fading on purple ice plant (Delosperma cooperi)

I live in a region where winter temperatures can dip into the single digits (°F) and sometimes lower,  so my familiarity with ice plants is with cold hardy species and cultivars of the genus Delosperma. If you are familiar with this group of plants, it is most likely thanks to the Plant Select program based in Colorado, particularly the work of Mr. Delosperma himself, Panayoti Kelaidis. Several Delosperma species are cold hardy in the Intermountain West. Thanks to their promiscuous nature, numerous crosses have occurred between species and varieties, resulting in a wide array of flower colors. And speaking of their flowers, the glistening leaves of Delosperma have nothing on their shimmering flowers, some of which may have the ability to temporarily blind you if you’re not careful. Sun is essential though, as they usually close up when shaded.

The cold hardy ice plants of the Delosperma genus are all groundcovers, maintaining a low and creeping profile. Some creep further than others. They are generally not fond of heavy clay soils, and instead prefer soil with good drainage. During the hot, dry days of summer, they appreciate a little water now and then, but watering should be cut off at the end of summer so that they aren’t sitting in saturated soils as winter approaches. They love the sun and will generally flower from late spring throughout the summer. Of course, thanks to their interesting foliage, they catch the eye and provide interest in the garden even when they aren’t flowering.

Fire Spinner® ice plant (Delosperma ‘P001S’)

Within Aizoaceae there are several species that go by the name ice plant that are not so cold hardy. Some are grown as house plants, while others are common in gardens. Still others, like Carpobrotus edulis, were once employed by land managers in California to help control erosion. However, like a number of species introduced for this purpose, C. edulis (commonly known as highway ice plant or hottentot fig) has made itself at home in areas where it wasn’t invited. It has become particularly problematic in coastal ecosystems, spreading quickly across sandy soils and outcompeting native plants. Despite being brought in to control erosion, it actually causes erosion in steep, sandy areas when its carpet-like growth becomes heavy with water and begins sliding down the hill.

highway ice plant (Carpbrotus edulis) carpeting a slope near San Diego – photo credit: Sierra Laverty

Introducing plants to our gardens that come to us from the other side of the globe should be done with caution and care. We don’t want to be responsible for the next invasive species. Since ice plant species have become problematic in California, should we be concerned about cold hardy delospermas? In trialing their plants, invasive qualities are among those that the Plant Select program watches out for, and delospermas seem pretty safe. However, as Kelaidis observes in a blog post from 2014, we should remain vigilant.

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My Carrion Flowers

In April of last year, a box of stem cuttings arrived in my mailbox. They were sent to me by a friend in Colorado called Sandra (you may know her from one of her many ventures: Greenwoman Magazine, Greenwoman Publishing, Flora’s Forum, etc.). Sandra’s carrion flower had bloomed that spring, a stinky but delightful occasion. In her excitement, she asked if I would be interested in growing some carrion flowers of my own. Not one to turn down the chance to try my hand at cultivating something unusual, I gladly accepted her offer of a few cuttings sent via Priority Mail. Six cuttings arrived shortly thereafter, and upon reading through some instructions on the internet, I nestled them into their new home and hoped they would put down roots and stay a while.

carrion flower cuttings

There are several species of plants that are referred to commonly as carrion flower. The plant parts I received from Sandra are in the genus Stapelia (family: Apocynaceae or dogbane family), also known commonly as African starfish flower. There are around 100 species in the genus Stapelia, and they all originate from tropical and southern Africa, mostly in arid regions.

Stapelias are short-lived, low-growing, perennial succulents. Their stems typically stand erect and are produced along stolons (above ground runners), creating a tight clump of stems that appear cactus-like. Each stem has 4-6 flattened vertical flanks, giving it a cross or star shape when looking down from the top. On the outside edges of the flanks are a series of rudimentary leaves protruding from tubercles (wart-like growths), giving the stems a spiny appearance. The stems are usually green but can also be red or mottled with red or purple.

The flowers of Stapelia are the real show. They are produced at or near the base of the stem and have a star-shaped corolla with five fused petals that come to sharp points. The corolla has a wrinkly look and is often hairy, especially along the margins. Flowers can be variations of red, brown, yellow, and purple. In some species they can reach up to 18 inches wide. It is a unique looking flower, but even more unique is its scent. Because Stapelia flowers are pollinated by flies, they emit the scent of rotting animal flesh, an odor that flies can truly appreciate. In fact, flies can be so deceived by the appearance and scent of the flowers that they occasionally lay their eggs on or near them, expecting them to be a food source for their emerging larva.

Stapelia variegate (photo credit: eol.org)

Stapelia variegata (photo credit: eol.org)

Stapelia is easily propagated, especially by stem cuttings. Allow cuttings to dry in a cool, shady location for 48 hours and then stick them in a well-drained potting soil mix. Water moderately (preferably from below by placing the container in a tray and then filling the tray with water). Cuttings should root easily. All six of mine did.

Keep Stapelia in a sunny or mostly sunny location. If you live in USDA hardiness zone 9 or above, you can grow Stapelia outdoors. Otherwise, keep it indoors near a window that gets lots of sun. The main thing you will have to worry about is stem rot due to over watering. Grow Stapelia in a well-drained soil mix, water from below, and allow soil to dry out between waterings in order to avoid this.

Stapelia variegata (photo credit: eol.org)

Stapelia variegata (photo credit: eol.org)

As for me and my carrion flowers, like I said earlier, all six cuttings rooted. I transplanted one of them. Of the five left in the original pot, one rotted a couple weeks ago and another rotted during the writing of this post. The remaining ones still look healthy, but none of them have grown much since they rooted. The main problem I am having is that my house does not let in much sunlight. What appears relatively bright to me is probably cave-like to my carrion flowers. Until I remedy that situation, they may not grow much, they could continue to rot, and they probably won’t flower any time soon. However, if anything changes and I do get a flower out of them, I will make it a point to let you know. And Sandra will be proud.

stapelia today_edit