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growing ice plant from seed

The Ice Plant Cometh: Growing Dorotheanthus Bellidiformis from Seed

This blog's title was a no-brainer. I mean, come on. How clever is "The Ice Plant Cometh?" But maybe we aren't the world's biggest brainiacs, because we didn't realize that there's more to the play on Eugene O'Neill's...well, play title...than the whole ice plant/iceman thing. Two of O'Neill's primary characters fought in the Boer War in South Africa...and South Africa is Dorotheanthus bellidiformis' native land.

Whoa. I mean, how many South African native plants have we blogged about? None that we can think of at this moment. Funny how things work out.

We really love ice plant. It's low-maintenance, and among the most unusual flowering plants we offer. Our favorite variety, "Livingstone Daisy," has become a best-seller, especially among those who're challenged by low-quality sandy soil, watering restrictions, and high summer temperatures.

Getting Ice Plant's Names Straight

A member of the Aizoaceae family, Dorotheanthus bellidiformis was previously classified under the genus Mesembryanthemum criniflorum—a name still used in many seed catalogs and garden nurseries today. And get this: You'll also find it labeled by these botanical and common names, according to the National Gardening Association Plants Database:

  • Cleretum bellidiforme
  • Dorotheanthus ulularis
  • Annual ice plant
  • Livingstone daisy
  • Bokbaaivygie (Afrikaans)
  • Ice plant, ice-plant, ice plant, potato, potahtoe, tomato, tomahtoe

We're going to buck the system and, for the purpose of this post, choose three names for this plant: Livingstone Daisy, Dorotheanthus bellidiformis, and just plain old "ice plant." And before we go much further, we'll address the obvious question: Why is it called "ice plant," anyway? Its succulent leaves and stems are covered with papillae, tiny clear bead-shaped nodules that give the plants the appearance of being covered with ice crystals.

"First described by botanist Martin Heinrich Schwantes, the genus was named in honor of his mother, Dorothea," wrote Elisabeth Ginsburg, author of the column “The Gardeners' Apprentice.” She also proposed that "Livingstone" may be a reference to 19th century physician, explorer, and missionary Dr. David Livingstone. She wasn't sure if Livingstone ever made it to South Africa, but we learned that he sure as heck did, and he dabbled in botany. So...yep, we're pretty sure that he's the plant's namesake.

As for the title "annual ice plant," it's grown as such in most USDA hardiness zones but in its native range and warmer zones, it's technically a tender perennial. It self-seeds easily, though, so an established patch of ice plant will reproduce itself and stick around with minimal care.

The Livingstone Daisy's Origins & Potential Medicinal Uses

As we just mentioned, D. bellidiformis is a South African native. According to Khumbula Indigenous Garden's database of native South African plants, the species' original range extends "from Namaqualand in the Northern Cape to Stilbaai (Bay of the Sleeping Beauty) in the Western Cape, on flat, sandy plains near the sea, and further inland in the Northern Cape." The plants are a vivid highlight of the famous Namaqualand Flower Route, in Namaqua National Park.

We haven't raved about weed-eating goats lately, so now's a great time to mention that one of the most popular breeds of goat used for meat here in North America, Boer Goats, are also from South Africa. They thrive in poor environments, as do Livingstone daisies.

We couldn't find any indication that Livingstone daisy itself plays a role in natural medicine, but here are some interesting facts about its sister species in "The Pretty and Useful Ice Plant from Tenerife," an article by Steve Andrews on the science nerd website, Owlcation:

  • Ash from burned common ice plant, a.k.a. Mesembryanthemum crystallinum was once a source of soda carbonate. It was imported from Africa to the Canary Islands (Lanzarote and Fuerteventura) in the 19th century, and cultivated for this purpose.
  • Later, in the 1990s, a nurse named Waltraud Marschke who worked at Centro de Terapia Antroposófica on Lanzarote discovered that ice plant had many of the same skin-healing properties characteristic of aloe vera.

We don't recommend using ice plant topically or internally without first consulting your doctor, who will promptly prescribe you a very expensive pharmaceutical to perform the intended function. If, however, the Zombie Apocalypse befalls us all, what the heck. Give it a shot.

Livingston Daisies Ice Plant in the Garden

Dorotheanthus bellidiformis flowers look a lot like daisies (thus the common name), but with an unusual, enchanting, iridescent sheen. They bloom in a variety of colors, including:

  • Orange
  • Pink
  • Purple
  • Red
  • White
  • Yellow

You'll also see bi-colored ice plant flowers, in which the blossoms are white around the central discs, blending into colorful edges at the tips of the rays. And as if they weren't cool enough with their glittery sparkle and phenomenal, shimmery colors, D. bellidiformis flowers close up under overcast skies or under the cover of dark. The flowers are roughly two to three inches across, and the petals are more slender than those of their "true" daisy namesake. In the hottest regions, the plants will stop flowering mid-summer, but in cooler temperatures, they'll bloom straight through the season.

Their three-inch, gray-green leaves are rough-textured, somewhat triangular, a bit rumply, and concave. They're succulent, meaning that if you tear one open, it will have a gelatinous interior.

Where should I grow my so-called "annual" ice plants?

Are you looking for a plant to grow at your coastal home? Are you frustrated that you need to bring in yards of dirt and compost to combat your sandy, desert soil? Ice plant will thrive in nutrient-poor, even slightly-saline soils.

Their low profile and spreading habit makes them an excellent mass-planted ground cover for neglected garden areas, a rock garden specimen, or a compact border plant. Growing ice plant from seed works well with similarly-textured succulents such as hen-and-chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), or with sedges. Have you ever heard of living roofs? Ideal plants include those that are low-maintenance, and thrive in super-light soils. You'll often find ice plants among them, and building a living roof on a garden shed is a fun family project and not as complicated as you might think.

D. bellidiformis is a fantastic candidate for hanging basket or container gardening provided they're given a ton of drainage, and a cactus-type potting mix with sand and Perlite. Given that the plants are quite dense, you might want to choose a 10" or larger pot to help balance the weight. Bring your containers indoors to get your ice plants through winter if you live outside zones 10 and 11, or be prepared to start new plants each year if you don't want to rely on them reproducing themselves through self-seeding.

Are Dorotheanthus bellidiformis safe to grow around my family and pets?

Yes! They're non-toxic, and the ASPCA has cleared them and other ice plants as a pet-safe plant. While the California Poison Control System doesn't specifically list D. bellidiformis as non-toxic, it names three of its very close cousins—including Mesembryanthemum cordifolium—as safe.

Maybe we should ask, "are ice plants safe around my kids?" The succulent leaves and colorful flowers seem to be a magnet for curious children, who like to tear up the foliage to inspect the gelatinous goo, or pick at the shiny little orbs that give the plant its name.

OK, I'm ready for the details!

  • USDA Hardiness Zones: 5 through 11; perennial in 10 and 11. Not at all frost hardy.
  • Sunlight Preferences: Full sun
  • Moisture Requirements: Drought-resistant
  • Soil Preferences: Thrives in poor, sandy soils, but requires excellent drainage. Neutral soils are ideal, but ice plants tolerate a wide pH range.
  • Plant Height: 6" to 8" tall
  • Plant Width: 10" to 12" spread
  • Growth Habit: Spreading, ground-hugging
  • Bloom Period: Spring until mid-summer in the hottest areas; may bloom until fall in cooler climates.
  • Pests & Diseases: Overwatering will cause fungus and rot, and slimy critters and aphids like to nibble on young plant parts, but otherwise, ice plants are resilient to pests and diseases.
  • Maintenance: Deadhead flowers and trim dried leaves and stems to rejuvenate the plants. Shake out the dried flowers to help distribute the seeds if you want a fresh crop next season.

Growing Ice Plant from Seed

Set yourself up to grow a ton of this stuff. Nursery flats work fine for Livingstone daisies, and if you plant extras, you'll have some low-maintenance gifts to pass along to friends and neighbors. Go the extra mile and make living arrangements of potted succulents and sedums; even your black-thumbed buddies will enjoy them, since they do better when they're neglected than they do when they're coddled.

  • Seed Treatment: Ice plant seeds benefit from a 12-hour soak using the paper towel stratification method.
  • When to Plant Outdoors: Plant after your last spring frost.
  • When to Plant Indoors: 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost; germinate them in a room that's between 65°F and 70°F, either in a very sunny window or under grow lights.
  • Seed Depth: 1/8" deep, or surface-sow; ice plant requires sunlight to germinate.
  • Seed Spacing: Thin or plant 12" to 18" apart.
  • Days to Germination: 12 to 24 days
  • Transplanting Tips: Plant your seedlings when they've reached about 2” to 3" tall. We recommend a week or so of hardening off before you send them packing to their forever home.

Make sure your seedling mix or garden beds are free of debris, and keep the soil (and seedlings) moist until they're well-established. Even though ice plants aren't picky about soil, mixing in a bit of compost will help them get established and retain soil moisture until they've taken root.

The Best Ice Plant Seeds Cometh from Seed Needs

Eugene O'Neill's play might have been about shattered booze-fueled dreams, but if you buy fresh, high-quality seeds and moderate your alcohol intake, your garden won't be a flop this season. Contact us at Seed Needs to find out more about our ever-expanding online seed catalog!

By the way...that's one of the reasons we don't mail out paper catalogs. We're constantly adding new ornamental, herb, and vegetable varieties, so we'd have to keep stuffing flyer inserts with our latest products. Another reason is that we're trying to keep our costs and prices down, especially since we source our own seeds from the highest-quality suppliers...and good stuff doesn't come cheap.

The third reason? We can't get Denzel Washington to pose on the cover.
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