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What is Aizoaceae?

Aizoaceae, known as the ice plant family, is a diverse group of flowering succulents that thrive in arid environments. These resilient plants boast vibrant daisy-like blooms and fleshy leaves, often with a shimmering, crystalline texture. Their unique adaptations make them a fascinating study in survival. How do these hardy species flourish where others cannot? Join us to uncover their secrets.
H.R. Childress
H.R. Childress

Aizoaceae is a large family of succulent plants, also called the fig marigold family. Most of the species originate from southern Africa, but some are native to Australia and the Pacific islands. The family consists of 130 genera containing around 2,500 species. Certain species of Aizoaceae are sometimes used for food.

All the plants in the family are considered succulents, but they vary widely in size, shape, and appearance. Some plants have upright stems, while others are creeping groundcover plants. The leaves range from short and very thick to long and slender. Flowers can be white, orange, yellow, red, pink, or purple, depending on the species. Some species produce only one or two flowers per plant, and others produce many. The flowers can be almost unnoticeable or large and showy.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Several members of Aizoaceae are commonly known as ice plant or sea fig, including the Carpobrotus genus and the Mesembryanthemum crystallinum. Ice plant gets its name from tiny transparent bladders that cover the stems and leaves of the plants, giving the appearance of frozen water. The Carpobrotus chilensis species of ice plant was brought to the United States from South Africa to be used for bank stabilization. Ice plants spread quickly and are invasive, however, so this also led to the plants crowding out native vegetation, particularly other plant species that grow on sand dunes.

The ice plant species have edible leaves — they are sometimes boiled and prepared much like spinach. Another species of Aizoaceae, commonly called New Zealand spinach, is eaten in much the same way. The scientific name for New Zealand spinach is Tetragonia tetragoniodes. These "spinach" plants are heat tolerant to much higher temperatures than actual spinach — up to 95°F (about 35°C) — so they are sometimes planted in tropical locations where spinach would not survive. Similar to spinach, New Zealand spinach can be eaten raw or cooked.

Some more unusual members of Aizoaceae are in the Lithops genus and are popularly known as living stones. Lithops plants look like a pair of pebbles resting on the ground, but they are actually composed of two extremely wide, squat leaves that are colored and patterned to resemble stones. The strange leaves not only make living stones less noticeable to scavenging plant eaters, but they are also shaped to conserve water by limiting the amount of evaporation that takes place. In autumn or early winter, Lithops plants produce one yellow or white flower per pair of leaves.

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    • Woman with a flower
      Woman with a flower