Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crystals in the sun

Crystal plant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum
The crystal plant is a rare indigenous plant that grows along the coast in sandy or gravely habitats. It is native to Europe, Africa and western Asia.

This species is also known as the ice plant. It got these names because the entire plant is covered in crystalline bladders which shine in the sun.

It is also known as the mesembryanthemum. This name is derived from its scientific name, but it is so difficult to remember and pronounce that I think that it is hardly ever used. This name was given to it because the flowers open only on sunny days close to midday.

In Maltese it is known as kristallina kbira.

The seeds germinate in winter and the flowers appear in spring and early summer. After the flowering season the plant dies, although, in the right conditions it can survive for another year or more.

The leaves are thick and succulent which helps the plant survive in a salty environment. It forms circular patches of a diameter of about one metre and hardly ever rises more than ten centimetres above the ground.

The thick leaves are edible, as are the seeds which are so small that they are eaten only in emergencies. The plant is also used medicinally. It is used as an anti-inflammatory and is particularly effective for the treatment of the membranes of the lungs and genitourinary system.  

The leaves can be crushed and used instead of soap.

The crystal plant is very rare in the Maltese islands and wild specimens should not be used medicinally or for any other purpose as this could endanger the existence of this species in the Maltese islands.

This attractive plant is sometimes cultivated. The seeds are easily cultivated and it would be a good idea if it was used as an ornamental plant in public areas close to the sea instead of non-indigenous species.

A more common indigenous species is the lesser crystal plant which grows in the same habitat as the crystal plant. Both species accumulate salt in their leaves. When the plants die this salt leaches into the soil and increases the salinity of the surrounding substrate making it for the seeds of less salt-tolerant species to germinate and grow. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 22 May 2013

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