Carpobrotus edulis: invasive food & medicine

sea figs - Carpobrotus edulis

Ripened ‘fruit’ of the sea fig (the outer layer just needs to be peeled) and ‘leaves’ from the locally named, ‘ice plant’ (Carpobrotus edulis)

New wormhole => Carpobrotus edulis (Latin name)

Common name in California:  ice plant
Common name in South Africa (place of origin):  sour fig, hottentot fig, or sea fig
Indigenous names for sour fig (South Africa):  hotnotsvy, suurvy, perdevy and ghaukum

As many of you know…this plant is *everywhere* in coastal California.

Don’t forget. Invasive plant medicines and foods are often times important medicines and foods.  There’s a reason why people connect with a plant and bring them to other places (whether this is the right thing to do is another discussion, though).

This native plant of South Africa (with a long and deep history with the First Peoples of that land) seems to be a powerhouse plant medicine with similar attributes as Aloe vera (which makes sense given its succulent leaves and drought tolerance).

Some of its attributes:  Anti-microbial. Anti-inflammatory. Vulnerary.

Traditional uses include:

leaves — sore throat, tuberculosis, lung infections, diabetes II, a number of topical skin uses (typically administered by juicing the leaves, eating the tips of the leaves, or applying a topical poultice of the leaves)

fruit — naturally-occurring electrolytes (one source said), anti-oxidants; the fruit taste slightly salty, slightly sour, and slightly sweet; the aroma of the fruit is really heady and amazing

(Side note about the fruit — my husband had a friend in grad school that was all about the fruits of this plant. He was from South Africa and couldn’t believe that no one was harvesting it when it was ripe! He liked to cook with the fruits and added them to chili recipes. I’ve also seen mention of people using them in curries).


Sea or sour figs after I peeled the outer layer off and peeled the dried flower parts off the top; ready to cook with or enjoy raw

A friend-of-a-friend, from South Africa had to say this about this plant:

I have forgotten the Zulu name, but I know it as “sour fig” and we share the afore understanding of its use as an astringent, anti-septic and pain relief qualities. It has been one of the only natural medicines that I’ve found to be effective for tooth and ear ache. The sap is much like aloe and the gel is squeezed directly onto affected area (into the ear, on tooth/gum, into irritable eye).

Here is a quote from another source, this time a scientific publication:

“Carpobrotus edulis is an important medicinal plant used in ethno medicine for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory infections, toothache and earache, facial eczema, wounds, burns, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus. Pharmacological studies performed on the fresh plant materials, crude extracts and various solvent extracts of Carpobrotus edulis validates the traditional medical use of the plant. Studies performed validate the use of Carpobrotus edulis extracts in antimicrobial, antiproliferative, and antioxidant therapy. “


So……my first culinary experience with sea or sour figs was a success!

Grass-fed beef, sea fig chili on quinoa…

Little one and hubs both enjoyed this dish (as did I). The slimy texture of the sea figs reminded me of okra while the play on sweet and sour reminded my husband of tamarind.

All in all a good experience… We’ll be back for more!

My next exploration of this plant will be the medicine from the leaves.  I always think of prickly pear (Opuntia sp) or aloe vera when reading about how it is used in South Africa.  So, I will explore topical and internal uses.  The leaves are *very* astringent, and have a slight sour and bitter taste to them.

On a parting note, it’s interesting how my senses have shifted and can tell if it is near me even without seeing it.  Every time I walk past a patch of ice plant that is fruiting….I smell the heavenly aroma of the ripening fruits.  The scent is unmistakable.  Actually, the aroma is more heavenly than the fruit, itself, but I still enjoy eating them.

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