The generic name Mesembryanthemum comes from the Greek words mesembria = midday and anthemon = flower. Both the generic name and the German name Mittagsblume (noon plant) are a reference to the flowers which only open when there is strong sunshine, i.e. usually at noon. The family name Aizoazeae, from the Greek word aizoon = living eternally, describes the robustness of our plant.
But we promised to tell you how the ice plant manages to cope with such great heat. It does this by holding its breath during the day. Normally plants take up carbon dioxide during the day and convert it to sugar and oxygen with the help of sunlight. The plant breathes through pores on the undersides of the leaves but it also loses water through them. So the ice plant closes these so-called stomata during the day and only breathes after sundown. The carbon dioxide it takes up is bound to a molecule and processed to sugar and oxygen the following morning by means of photosynthesis.
But that is not all. The ice plant has the initially perplexing oddity that it accumulates salt. Any normal plant dies if it is exposed to too much salt. We are familiar with this after cold winters when we find that the salt put on icy roads has damaged the vegetation. But in coastal areas the ice plant even takes up salt from the air if the soil is not salty enough. What does it do with it? The salt stimulates the production of fruit acids in the plant. And these, together with sugar alcohols, abundant magnesium and the amino acid proline, provide a natural moisture retaining factor. So these constituents of our plant actually attract and bind the little moisture present in its environment. This is demonstrated particularly impressively by cut branches which do not dry out until after many weeks.
The red colour of the leaves completes the heat protection. The colour comes from the so-called betacyanins, pigments which absorb light and thus provide natural protection against the sun.
On account of its high salt content the ice plant leaves behind salty soils wherever it grows. As this makes the soil barren for other plants the earlier practice of planting ice plant to prevent erosion has now largely been abandoned.
The leaves of the ice plant make a spinach like vegetable. South Africans chew the fermented leaves.
On the Canary Islands the ice plant used to be used to obtain soda (sodium carbonate) which is found in large amounts in the ash. This is the origin of its one of it's German names: soda plant.
Incidentally, it was a nurse who discovered the healing powers of ice plant in itching, pain, swelling and redness of the skin. When Waltraud Marschke was working at the centre for anthroposophical therapies on the Canary Island of Lanzarote she was struck by this wondrous plant. In 1988, after extensive practical trials with the ice plant, Nurse Waltraud published her knowledge, which is increasingly gaining ground.