The ice plant
It’s particularly apt this week, when icy temperatures are forecast for most of Spain, to talk about a little heat-loving, creeping succulent that is affectionately known as the ice plant, drosanthemum floribundum. It will soon be in flower in our gardens and is often seen in urbanisation plantings, flashing its eye-catching sheets of flowers in bright swathes.
There are a range of these ground-covering ice plants (next week I will tell you about some others) and identification and naming has become somewhat muddled but they all belong to the mesembryanthemaceae family so are often just called mesembryanthemums. Drosanthemum are also known as dewflowers, coming from the Greek words for dew, drosos, and flower, anthos, in recognition of their sparkling, glitter- ing leaves and flower buds.
D. floribundum produces dazzling pale lilac flowers in springtime, converting into sheets of metallic-sheened ground cover on sunny days. Their flowers do not open on dull, cool days but it is stunning on winter-bright sunshine days. It is a South African sunlover, found in a wide swathe from Cape Town into the Karoo desert. In the past, these tough survivors were commonly planted around homesteads; when times were hard, they were excellent feed for cattle, sheep and ostriches and were also a rich pollen source for honey bees. The plants grow very flat to the ground, hugging its contours tightly and each plant can easily colonise two square metres. They are extremely drought resistant, fire resistant, salt tolerant and help prevent ground erosion by breaking the force of downpours. Interestingly, although they have fleshy, grey-green, stubby sausage-like succulent leaves they are reckoned to be hardy to - 10C, so the low temperatures forecast over the next week shouldnt´ harm them. They are happy in poor soil, gravel gardens or tucked between rocks or paving; dont´ put them into cold clay soil, they will not do well. Plants will generally perform well for some 5 or 7 years, then they will become straggly with poor flowering and are best replaced.
Sometimes they will self-seed but if you want to help them along it is quite easy to propagate from their tiny seeds. Collect the ripe seed capsules and break them up to release the seed. It may help to pass them through a fine sieve. Sow in a fine gritty compost and cover very lightly; deep sowing will result in poor germination. Keep the seed tray moist, using a fine spray so as not to dislodge the tiny seeds. Germination will generally take about a week. Once they have formed 5 or 6 leaves, carefully prick them out into individual pots. Grow them on and then harden off (especially acclimatise them to sun) before planting out. Cuttings can also be taken but the strike rate is usually poor. The main flowering is in springtime when they will, literally, become a sheet of shining lilac. If you lightly trim the plants over after flowering, they will often produce a second flush, if lesser, in autumn.
Try some on a hot, dry bank or draped over a wall - the effect is truly glistening!