Don’t Let Salty Ice Plants Ruin Your Soil, Plant This Instead

Don't Let Salty Ice Plants Ruin Your Soil, Plant This Instead

Ice plants are colorful flowers that can be found in plant nurseries during spring and summer. Although they may seem like a good addition to your garden, it’s better to keep them in pots or avoid planting them altogether. These plants are very tough, but unfortunately in a negative way, as they tend to smother everything around them and make the soil salty, which can prevent other plants from growing.

Instead, consider planting lupines, a beautiful alternative that is native to the same areas where ice plants are problematic. Lupines come in a variety of species, each with unique benefits for your garden. They belong to the legume family, so they enrich the soil with nitrogen, and they also attract many native pollinator species, making them an ecologically friendly choice.

Why you should ice out the ice plants

coast full of ice plants


How can such a pretty plant be so bad? It’s largely due to their being native to South Africa and not the United States. They can be found throughout the coast of California, so you might think they’re native. However, since it’s not a local plant, it’s not a host for any native insect species. Pollinators and other insects rarely visit ice plants, making them essentially useless in terms of function. They have a vigorous growth rate, allowing them to spread across open land easily. Their growth habit will overtake native plants and make it impossible for the natives to reestablish themselves. There’s also the added problem of them making the soil too salty. Salty soil prevents seeds from sprouting. So, if there’s any real estate available in a field of ice plants, native seeds still won’t stand a chance.

Ice plants were first planted to stop erosion around railroad tracks, but that has proven a bad idea. They have shallow root systems that don’t help with erosion but can do the opposite. If they grow too much and become heavy, they can cause the soil to erode off of hillsides, creating a landslide. The leaves they drop are slow to decompose, so the dry leaves that are left to sit indefinitely fuel the fires that frequently burn the lands they grow on.

Lupines do everything you want ice plants to do

mountainous field of lupines

Jon Farmer/Getty Images

Lupines check off everything on the list: they’re native, they host native insects, they improve the soil, and they even reduce erosion. It sounds a lot like what people wanted ice plants to be! Even though they’re not similar in size and looks, they’re a beautiful alternative that will benefit the environment rather than alter it for negative reasons. Lupines are native to mountainous regions and will spread over flat areas. The downside to lupines is that they’re invasive in the eastern half of North America; however, many varieties are native to the western half, where ice plants are a problem.

Lupines can be annuals or perennials, depending on the variety. Some are short and grow out rather than upward, while others can grow up to 5 feet tall. They also attract hummingbirds and a wide variety of native insects, including many kinds of bees, providing food and shelter to the species that ice plants evict.

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Dr Heidi Parkes

By Dr Heidi Parkes

Senior Information Extension Officer QLD Dept of Agriculture & Fisheries.