Dear Readers, the local garden centre is absolutely full of these cheery little plants at the moment, and the ones in my window boxes are positively busting out all over. These are succulents, and so are (helpfully) drought-resistant, a theme that feels more and more important as hosepipe bans loom, and heatwaves and dry spells are likely to become more common.
The common name for Delosperma is ‘ice plant’, but this is also used for a whole variety of what I used to call sedums. Older readers might also remember the name ‘Mesembryanthemum’. There are about 170 plants in the genus, and all of them live in Southern Africa. They are beautifully adapted to dry conditions: their leaves are fleshy and store water for arid times, and the seed capsule opens in response to rain to free the seeds at the most auspicious time. These plants have been flowering consistently since I planted them over a month ago, with no sign of stopping yet! They seem to be attractive to hoverflies, though the marjoram that they’re planted with is a much bigger draw for bees.
Another adaptation to arid living is the bladder cell: this is what gives the plant the name ‘ice plant’, as sometimes the cells shimmer with liquid. They are modified hair cells, and during times of high stress will manage the salt intake of the plant – as less water is available, the salts in the plant can reach toxic levels. There is some thought of using members of the Delosperma genus for bioremediation of salt-logged soils.
So, Delosperma is clearly a great plant for a sun-drenched south-facing window box, and it comes in a whole array of colours too, from red, orange and yellow through cool blues and icy whites. I imagine it must look strikingly beautiful when it blooms in its natural surroundings. In California it seems to be a favourite in some ocean-front properties, maybe due to its ability to cope with the salty breezes.
Remarkably, though, the plant is also very hardy – one gardener that I follow has found that his Delosperma specimens will survive a Newfoundland winter, and I may well leave mine out just to see if they can make it through the colder months.
Although the plant doesn’t look as if it might be particularly edible, it was apparently taken onboard ship and the leaves eaten to prevent scurvy – again, maybe its drought and salt tolerance would have made it appealing. I imagine that the leaves taste a little like samphire. Medicinally, the leaves have been used to make a soothing cream, and have also been used to treat bloating, dysentery, liver and kidney disease and pneumonia. Interestingly, the leaves are also said to contain hallucinogenic chemicals, and a deep dive into the internet realm of people rearing plants for their psychedelic properties reveals lots of folk growing pretty pink succulents and having no success with getting high whatsoever. Personally, I think that the flowers are quite ‘trippy’ enough without eating the poor thing.
However, the Batu people of South Africa use the leaves of Delosperma to make khadi, an alcoholic wine which induces hallucinations. The roots are used to grow yeasts which are then used for beer.
And now, how about a poem, lovely people? I am reminded of the photo of the California coast (above) as I read this. It takes a couple of readings, I think, to absorb all the nuance. W.S di Piero was born in Philadelphia in 1945, and his poems are said to be full of ‘gritty realism’: he also takes inspiration from painters such as Caravaggio and (my favourite!) Carpaccio. I think there’s something epic about this work, as it reaches back in time and then focuses in on the flowers around a child’s feet. See what you think.
BY W. S. DI PIERO
From where I stood at the field’s immaculate edge,
walking past the open patch of land that’s money bounded,
in California’s flat sunlight, by suburban shadows of houses
occupied by professors, lawyers, radically affluent do-gooders,
simple casual types, plus a few plumbers, children of lettuce-pickers
and microchip princes, grandchildren of goatherds and orchard keepers
who pruned and picked apricot trees that covered what wasn’t yet
block after block. Vaporized by money, by the lords and ladies of money,
in one month, on one block, three bungalows bulldozed, and the tanky smells
of goatherds and, before them, dirt farmers who never got enough water,
held momentary in the air like an album snapshot’s aura,
souls of roller-rink sweethearts and sausage-makers fleeing
heaps of crusty lath, lead pipe, tiny window casements,
then new foundations poured for cozy twelve-room houses.
So what was she doing in that field among weeds and ice plant?
The yellow and pink blooms spiking around her feet like glory?
Cranking her elbow as surveyors do, to a bored watcher in the distance,
she fanned the air, clouds running low and fast behind her.
A voice seeped through the moodless sunlight
as she seemed to talk to the flowers and high weeds.
She noticed me, pointed in my direction. Accusation, election,
I could not tell, nor if it was at me myself
or the green undeveloped space she occupied,
welded into her grid by traffic noise. Okay!
A word for me? A go-ahead? Okay! Smeared by the wind
and maybe not her own voice after all. I held my place.
She would be one of the clenched ministers adrift
in bus terminals and K-Marts, carrying guns
in other parts of America, except she dressed like a casual lady of money,
running shoes, snowbird sunglasses, wristwatch like a black birthday cake.
The voice, thin and pipey, came from the boy or girl,
blond like her, who edged into view as I tracked the shot. The child,
staring down while he cried his song, slowly tread the labyrinth
of ice plant’s juicy starburst flesh of leaves.
Okay! He follows the nested space between flowers that bristle at his feet,
his or hers, while the desiccated California sky so far from heaven and hell
beams down on us beings of flower, water, and flesh before we turn to money.
The sky kept sliding through the tips of weeds. The sky left us behind.
Photo One By Peter D. Tillman – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89361118