The crystalline ice plant, although originating from South Africa, has strong ties with the history of Lanzarote. It has been used as a food plant and brought prosperity to the island. Nowadays the ice plant has been rediscovered as a plant with astonishing medicinal qualities.
The common ice plant, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L, sometimes also known as the crystalline ice plant, is a very special plant. Although it originates from the Cape region of South Africa, the ice plant has very strong ties with the history of Lanzarote. The 'barilla', or 'escarcha', as it is known by the locals, has not only been used by the islanders as a food plant but also served to bring a little prosperity to the island for a few decades, while they were able to export the plant for soap manufacturing. That all came to an abrupt end in the late 19th century with the beginning of large-scale industrial soap production. However, there‘s more to the ice plant than just a source of sodium carbonate as a raw material for making soap.
From raw soda to soothing balm
It was only during a relatively short period at the beginning of the19th century that the Canaries, particularly Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, were able to profit from the export of the common ice plant. It was at the time when washing suddenly became the in thing in France and soap was made, at first from ash and water, later from fat and soda. And the best raw soda, also known as barilla, came from the ice plant. After drying and burning, the ash contained 40% sodium carbonate. That was a lot compared with other plants containing soda, which had levels of 20% at most, sometimes only 2-4%.
At last the islanders had discovered something which grew like a weed and could bring in some money – especially as it needed hardly any water and even less looking after. However, the money-making days were soon to be over. Increasing demand for detergents and soaps in Central Europe fuelled research there, and in1865 Ernest Solvay revolutionised the process of artificially manufacturing soda, which had already been discovered by the Frenchman Nicolas Leblanc in 1790. This brought an abrupt end to the European reliance on ice plant imports from the Canaries. Exports collapsed literally from one day to the next, and the common ice plant spent the next 100 years or so unnoticed and unloved.
Hydration in response to drought stress
Then, in 1994, the ice plant was rediscovered by a nurse, Waltraud Marschke, this time as a medicinal plant. Marschke began to conduct experiments with the shiny specimens at the Anthroposophical Centre’s finca on Lanzarote. She collected the succulent, fleshy leaves of the plant, whose metabolism is perfectly attuned to cope with intense solar radiation, drought and salt stress. She squeezed out the fresh sap, which she used either undiluted or as an extract in baths to treat the widest imaginable range of skin conditions. She also worked with pharmacists to develop a very effective cream from extracts of the ice plant.
The results were amazing. Young children suffering from neurodermatitis, brought to her crying and constantly scratching themselves, were able to enjoy an untroubled night‘s rest after just one soothing bath with a solution of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L. After a fourteen-day course of baths the children were largely free of symptoms.
Fountain of Youth for the skin
Encouraged by these results, Marschke set up production of a cream made from extracts of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L. in the pharmacy of the district hospital at Herdecke. She managed to persuade researchers at Wala Heilmittel GmbH of the efficacy of the plant, and they then included extracts of the sturdy ice plant in their Dr. Hauschka range of sun care products. Skin damage caused by radiotherapy, neurodermatitis and psoriasis, as well as general itchiness, skin irritation, swelling and redness, are all symptoms which Waltraud Marschke treats with extracts of Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L., achieving very positive results. Since Sister Waltraud published her research in 1998, more and more people have taken note of her success.
So what makes this plant so special? Its botanical name is derived from the Greek words mesembria (midday) and anthemon (bloom), and its family name Aizoazeae comes from the Greek aizoon, meaning having eternal life, which is surely a reference to the plant’s toughness. The answer is that by day it holds its breath!
Surviving in the heat
Normally plants absorb carbon dioxide during the day, and use sunlight to turn it into sugar and oxygen. Plants breathe through openings, called stomata, on the underside of their leaves, through which they also lose water. The ice plant closes these during the day and only breathes (i.e. opens them) after sunset. The carbon dioxide the plant absorbs is bound to a molecule which uses photosynthesis to convert it into sugar and oxygen, but not before the following morning.
But that is not all. The ice plant is unusual in that it can bind salt, which triggers the production of fruit acids in the plant. In turn, when combined with sugar alcohols and the plentiful quantities of magnesium already present, as well as amino acid proline, these produce a natural hydrating compound, because combined they have the ability to bind water from the air. It is particularly impressive to observe the effect of this in cut stems – they take weeks to dry out! The red colouration of the leaves increases their protection from the heat. The colour comes from substances called betacyanins, which absorb light and thus afford natural protection from the sun.
Similar to human skin
Chemists comparing the elements contained in the ice plant with the moisturisers naturally occurring in the human skin found many parallels, which could help explain the moisturising effect of the extracts of the ice plant. Just like human skin, the ice plant uses amino acids to collect water. It uses proline and hydroxyproline, with fruit acids and mono-, di-, and polysaccharides. Human skin uses similar substances – pyrrolidine carboxylic acid, urea and various glycoproteins. And that is thought to be the reason why preparations made from ice plant extracts have a gently soothing anti-inflammatory effect, easing itchiness, increasing moisture levels in the skin and improving the skin’s barrier function. They are beneficial for young and old skin, dry skin and treating neurodermatitis. Its UV protection can contribute to the effectiveness of sun care products such as Dr. Hauschka Wala Sun Cream.