Discover the Beauty of Ice Plant Ground Cover

Summertime is upon us, and with it comes the scorching heat. While we reach for ice cream and ice buckets to cool down, there’s another kind of ice that can add a refreshing touch to your garden – ice plants! These unique plants may not lower the temperature, but their icy appearance is sure to captivate you. Each petal is covered with translucent hairs that glisten like ice crystals in the sunlight. Ice plants come in various varieties, and no matter which one you choose, they are bound to make a striking addition to your summer garden!

Contrary to their name, ice plants are not frost-resistant. Instead, they are drought-tolerant succulents that thrive in hot climates. Perfect for desert and rock gardens, these plants will feel right at home in hot and arid regions. Ice plants are versatile and can be used as ground covers, edgings, or container plants. They even provide erosion control. These plants spread across the ground, forming a neat carpet of small, colorful flowers. Their blooms come in a vibrant range of yellow, orange, pink, purple, or white. The best part? Ice plants retain their vivid colors for several months, making them a quick and easy way to brighten up your landscaping throughout the entire summer growing season.

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance plant, ice plants are an excellent choice. Once established, they don’t require much attention and can thrive with minimal care. All you have to do is ensure they have the right conditions to thrive. In this guide, we will walk you through everything you need to know to grow beautiful ice plants in your home garden.

The Marvels of Ice Plants

Before we delve into the details of growing ice plants, let’s take a closer look at these remarkable plants. The term “ice plant” refers to a large group of species within the Aizoaceae family, commonly known as the Iceplant family. While there are many genera within this family, ice plants are primarily found in the Delosperma and Lampranthus genera. These two genera share similar characteristics and can usually be distinguished by the presence or absence of a seed pod membrane. However, other species outside the Aizoaceae family may also be referred to as ice plants. The name “ice plant” is used to describe a wide range of species that share similar appearance and growth habits.

Some common ice plant species that you may come across include Delosperma cooperi (Cooper’s ice plant) with its magenta blooms, Delosperma ‘Kelaidis’ featuring light pink flowers and hardiness up to zone 4, Delosperma nubigenum with its yellow flowers and exceptional cold hardiness, Delosperma ‘Jewel of the Desert Garnet’ boasting red and purple bi-color flowers, Lampranthus spectabilis with its white, purple, or pink flowers that spread rapidly, Lampranthus aurantiacus with its orange flowers and early blooming habit, and Carpobrotus edulis known as “Highway Iceplant” due to its invasive growth along the California coast. While these various species may have different common names, they share similar characteristics and growing requirements.

Ice plants originated from East and South Africa, which explains their preference for drought-like conditions and lower levels of cold tolerance. These plants were introduced to the United States in the 1990s and have since become popular as perennial evergreens in zones 5-10. However, due to their sensitivity to cold weather, ice plants in zones 5-7 require additional care to survive the winter and early spring.

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Ice plants are compact in stature, usually reaching a height of less than half a foot. However, they spread rapidly, providing excellent ground cover that can extend up to 2 feet wide. These succulents grow by sending up shoots from central stems, with each shoot producing flowers at its tip and roots extending from the node below. This growth pattern makes ice plants easy to propagate, giving gardeners the opportunity to expand their collection effortlessly.

Ice plant leaves are unique among succulents, with long, slender shapes resembling green beans. They are spaced well apart on each stem, similar to plants like Portulaca or String of Bananas. Although the foliage is typically grass green, some species may turn a plum-like purple in the winter months. While ice plants are evergreen, they may shed some foliage during colder winters.

From late spring to early fall, ice plants display consistent blooming (depending on the species). Each bloom is small, ranging from 1 to 2 inches in diameter, but can feature up to 100 delicate petals. These long-blooming, icy petals are slender and surround white centers adorned with hairy-looking stamens. Ice plants also attract butterflies and are deer-resistant. Moreover, some species are even edible, with their crunchy leaves making a unique addition to salads. However, it is always essential to double-check that the specific species you have is safe for consumption.

Essential Ice Plant Care Tips

Ice plants are known for their low-maintenance nature, but certain requirements must be met to ensure their well-being. Let’s explore the key factors that contribute to successful ice plant care.

Sun and Temperature

Ice plants thrive in full sun. While they can tolerate some light shade, ample sunlight will bring out their true beauty. These plants prefer hot conditions and are not particularly cold hardy. In hot and dry climates, it is advisable to plant ice plants in the fall to allow them time to establish themselves before the onset of intense heat. On the other hand, in colder regions, it is best to plant them by mid-summer to ensure they establish strong roots before the arrival of cold temperatures. If you live in a cold climate, growing cold-hardy ice plants in pots can offer added protection. Easily movable pots can be brought indoors during winter or spring lows, allowing you to maintain control over soil moisture levels.

Water and Humidity

While ice plants are considered drought-tolerant, they actually thrive in dry conditions. Watering should be done every few weeks, with the frequency increasing only during exceptionally hot weather. It is crucial to wait until the soil is completely dry before watering deeply, and even then, allow 5-7 days to pass before the next watering.

During the winter months, ice plants prefer to remain dry. Reduce watering starting in late fall and refrain from watering if there is snow or hard frost. While the lack of moisture may cause some foliage shrinkage, it is preferable to avoid potential freezing damage.

Humidity is not a friend of ice plants, as excessive moisture can lead to pest infestations and rot. Ensure that your ice plants are placed in a dry location and pruned to allow for adequate air circulation among the foliage.

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Soil

The texture of the soil is as important as sunlight when it comes to ice plant care. These plants thrive in sandy soil with excellent drainage. They do not tolerate clay soil well, so it is essential to provide them with a well-draining medium. Proper drainage becomes particularly crucial during winter in colder climates, as excessive moisture in the soil can quickly lead to root damage in low temperatures.

Ice plants do not require nutrient-rich soil and can fare well in poor soil conditions. This characteristic makes them suitable for rock gardens and gravelly soils. However, you can add some organic matter if you notice a decline in growth. In colder regions, adding a layer of straw, pine needles, or a frost blanket can help keep excess moisture out of the dry soil during winter.

Fertilizing

Generally, ice plants do not require frequent fertilization. However, if you notice slowed growth or fewer flowers than expected, you can add a small amount of fertilizer with a slightly higher phosphorus content. A ratio of 1-3-2 is suitable, but remember not to use straight phosphorus alone, as nitrogen and potassium are also necessary for optimal flowering.

Pruning

Pruning is not a strict requirement for ice plants, but it can help maintain a clean and healthy ground cover while preventing pest infestations. In mid-spring, remove spent flowers and clip off any stems that did not survive the winter. If you find that your ice plant ground cover has become too dense, thin it out during the summer to encourage better air circulation.

Propagating Ice Plants

Propagating ice plants is a breeze, thanks to their natural ability to produce new shoots and roots as they spread. To propagate, simply divide the plant into individual sections by identifying shoots that have sprouted roots or are already established. Cut the connecting stem and carefully transplant each shoot with its roots to its new location away from the original plant. This method is particularly useful in late spring.

While some hardy ice plants can self-seed, propagation through cuttings is a quicker and more reliable method.

Troubleshooting Ice Plant Issues

Ice plants are generally easy to care for and do not encounter many problems. However, it’s essential to know how to address any issues that may arise.

Growing Problems

As with any succulent, overwatering and root rot are common concerns. Excessive moisture can cause ice plant foliage to wither, turn yellow, and eventually die. It is crucial to water ice plant delosperma or lampranthus sparingly and ensure that the soil is well-draining. If you notice signs of overwatering, quickly transplant the plant to sandier soil and refrain from watering until the leaves regain their vitality.

Another issue that can affect ice plants is etiolation, which occurs when plants do not receive sufficient sunlight. In such cases, ice plants will stretch out in search of more light, resulting in leggy growth and sparse ground cover. Unfortunately, once the stems have elongated, they will not revert to their original state even with increased light exposure. To mitigate the effects of etiolation, you can trim back the leggy stems and provide ample sunlight to encourage new and more compact growth.

Pests

Aphids and mealybugs are common pests that can infest ice plants, as they are attracted to the plant sap found in succulents. If a large population of these pests attacks your ice plant, you may notice stunted growth, wilting foliage, and eventual plant death. Neem oil is usually effective in deterring these pests, and other options such as insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, pyrethrin spray, or spinosad spray can be used for more severe infestations. Preventing infestations is always the best approach, achieved by keeping the ice plant free from debris and avoiding overwatering.

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Diseases

Ice plants have recently been affected by a specific type of downy mildew caused by a fungus. This downy mildew was discovered in California in 2019 and is believed to primarily affect ice plants. The mold appears as a blue-grey growth that covers the foliage and destroys the plant tissue. Downy mildew thrives in cool and wet conditions, which are the exact opposite of what ice plants require. Since this disease is relatively new and eradication is challenging, prevention is key. Proper care and maintenance can significantly reduce the risk of downy mildew infestation.

Frequently Asked Questions

To conclude our exploration of ice plant care, let’s address some common questions that gardeners often have about these captivating plants:

Q: Do ice plants come back every year?
A: As long as you live in zone 5 or warmer, your purple ice plants will reliably bloom year after year. Additionally, they are evergreen, ensuring the presence of foliage throughout the winter months.

Q: Does ice plant need full sun?
A: Absolutely! Providing ample direct sunlight to your ice plants will yield abundant, long-lasting blooms. While they can tolerate light shade occasionally, they prefer sunny spots and drought-like conditions in the garden.

Q: Is ice plant invasive?
A: Ice plants are generally not invasive, but one species, Carpobrotus edulis, has become invasive in California.

Q: How fast does ice plant spread?
A: The rate of spread depends on the species, but overall, ice plants are fast growers, making them ideal for creating beautiful ground covers on sunny slopes.

Q: Why is ice plant a problem for California?
A: Carpobrotus edulis, also known as Highway Iceplant, is a species that has become invasive along the California coast. Other ice plant species, such as Delosperma and Lampranthus, do not pose the same challenges.

Q: Should you deadhead ice plants?
A: Deadheading spent ice plant flowers is not necessary but is recommended to prevent pest infestations and maintain plant health.

Q: Do ice plants attract bees?
A: Yes! The daisy-like flowers of ice plants are a magnet for bees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds.

Q: Is ice plant poisonous?
A: No, ice plants are generally not poisonous. In fact, many ice plant species are edible. However, it is crucial to ensure that the specific species you have is safe for consumption.

With their stunning appearance, easy care requirements, and ability to thrive in hot, dry climates, ice plants are a fantastic addition to any garden. Whether you choose Delosperma, Lampranthus, or another species, these unique plants will bring a touch of icy beauty to your landscape. So why not give ice plants a try and experience the wonders they can bring to your garden?

For more information on ice plants and to explore a wide variety of gardening products and resources, visit the Ames Farm Center.

Ice plant Carpobrotus edulis

Delosperma nubigenum, a cold hardy ice plant

Lampranthus aurantiacus

Delosperma cooperi

Carpobrotus edulis

Lampranthus spectabilis