Carpobrotus edulis (Hottentot Fig, Sea Fig, Marigold fig, Pig Face, Sour Fig and incorrectly known as Ice Plant)
whaddyamean, incorrectly known? everybody calls that stuff ice plant. and it’s edible? really?
yes, really! i was surprised too, on both counts. i was flipping through my “edible and useful plants of california” guide, when i came across the listing for ice plant. i was shocked, because i’ve put the cut leaf of the plant on my tongue, and it was so astringent it sucked all the moisture off, sending my mouth back to california in the 1970s. (there was a drought. get it? you weren’t born yet? what do you mean i’m old? i’m old AND i’m not funny? get off my lawn.).
anyway, you can eat the leaves of the true ice plant, but the fruit is what is sought after, and also why the plant is so prolific. the inside of the fruit IS very “fig” like, with many, many little seeds.
however, here is a picture of the true ice plant:
the leaves are a very different shape, and the texture of the skin of the stems and leaves is described as “bubbly”.
so then what the heck is that invasive stuff you see all over the dunes along the great highway and at baker beach? (no, i don’t mean the skeevy nude dudes). it’s called “sea fig” or “hottentot fig”. i knew it was called sea fig, but i thought the names were interchangeable. both the ice plant and the sea fig are edible, with the latter considered to be more intensely flavored.
on this foggy morning, leo and i headed to baker beach. the fruit is supposed to be at its peak a month after the flower, and since spring is getting on, i thought i would probably find the first of the fruit.
except that i had no idea what the fruit looked like. even a google search before i left was of no use.
succulent, low growing plant with distinctive triangular “french fry” leaves. blooms can be yellow, pink and/or hot pink, or white, and open fully at mid-day. i am not giving a lot of tips for identifying this one, because i’m assuming that everyone who lives on the pacific coast has seen it.
Where to find it:
there are vast fields of it all over the dunes here on bay area beaches. it was brought in from south africa to california in the early 1900s, to stabilize the ground along railroad tracks. caltrans began planting it everywhere in the 1970s. which is very unfortuanate…it is incredibly invasive, and creates huge monospecific dead zones with zero room for biodiversity. i encourage you to pick as much of the fruit as you want, without my usual warnings about leave-no-trace and protecting the reproductive efforts of the species.
Edible parts and How to harvest:
there were lots of blooms, and blooms that had gone by and dried up. but no discernible fruit. i got me some brains, and i know enough about plants to know that where there’s flowers, there’s gotta be fruit. so i picked one of the bulbs and scraped the dried petals off the top.
i nibbled at the top. it was terrible. and sandy.
i remembered something about the outer skin being tough and bitter, and the real treat being the juice and seeds inside. so i cut it in half with a piece of driftwood. and behold.
What does it taste like?
i tasted it. it was…bland. and mucilaginous. and did that thing that un-ripe, green fruit does to your mouth. (see above references to 1970s drought and gila monsters).
i found one that looked potentially more ripe.
but its flavor was not noticeably different. less astringent, less bland. however, i’m not convinced this is the perfect end result. i’ll be back in a month or so to try my foraging luck again.
i was excited to make jam out of the fruit, which is the primary use i have heard of, and is supposedly common in so. africa (i know a few so. african moms out there in blog-land…care to chime in?). i have also read instructions for chopping up the fruit, boiling briefly in enough water to cover, adding sugar, and reducing until it is syrupy. (a “quick jam”, really). i heard whisperings about it also being medicinal, but i was not able to find any reliable information. anyone know more?
the dunes around baker beach are actually being restored with native plants. there were still a few invasives, like yellow lupine, but only scattered here and there among all these other beauties.
think with your stomach! do not ingest wild plants unless you are sure you have identified them correctly and are willing to take responsibility for using yourself as a guinea pig. it is SO not my responsibility if you eat the wrong thing and get poopy pants, or die. you’re an adult. you can make your own choices.
happy hunting and have a wonderful weekend!