Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus Edulis) Guide: Uses, Benefits & Ecological Impact

Explore the versatile and hardy Carpobrotus Edulis, its culinary applications and the environmental concerns

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By Alex

hottentot fig

Native to South Africa, the Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis) is a resilient semi-hardy perennial belonging to the Aizoaceae family. It is among the 30 species in the Carpobrotus genus. The plant goes by several names including Pigface, Sour Fig, Ice Plant, Highway Ice Plant, and Cape Fig, each reflecting a different aspect of its appearance or use.

Hottentot Fig: Plant Identification

The plant features elongated, fleshy leaves that are about 12.5 cm (5 inches) long and approximately 1.2 cm (0.5 inches) thick. These leaves have a triangular cross-section and are slightly fused at the base. They start as light green/yellow and waxy but often become tinged with red around the edges and generally turn orange or reddish as they age.

Carpobrotus edulis showcases large, striking pink and yellow flowers that measure 7 to 8.5 cm wide. These flowers grow individually at the ends of short side branches on a succulent stem, featuring many false “petals” that are each 30 to 35 mm long and 1.5 to 2.5 mm wide.

Etymology

The name “Carpobrotus” derives from the ancient Greek words καρπός “karpos” (fruit) and βρωτός “brotos” (edible), literally translating to “edible fruit.”

The common name “Hottentot Fig” refers to its historical culinary use by the Khoi people of Botswana, known as ‘Hottentots,’ a term originating from the Cape Dutch dialect meaning ‘stammerer’ due to their distinctive language with click sounds.

hottentot fig

Distribution and Habitat

Carpobrotus edulis thrives in a variety of environments, including Africa, Anatolia, South America, and Oceania. In Europe, it is prevalent in coastal regions, often covering dunes and nearby beaches.

This plant can grow in harsh conditions, in areas with poor soil quality like rocky coastlines and sandy beaches, thanks to its morphological and physiological adaptations that allow it to withstand strong aridity and high temperatures.

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Culinary and Medicinal Uses

The fruit of the Carpobrotus edulis is a large, papillate capsule filled with dark, rough seeds embedded in a gelatinous mucilage. Upon ripening, the fruit turns yellow and releases a distinctive tart scent and flavor. It is perfectly edible and offers various health benefits without any side effects.

Known for its medicinal properties, incorporating Carpobrotus in daily diets is said to enhance overall physical and mental well-being. The plant can be used dried or fresh in culinary preparations or even as a powdered extract or juice, providing versatility in the kitchen.

Medicinal Benefits

For centuries, Carpobrotus edulis has been utilized by the Berber and Bushman populations for its beneficial effects on the skin, body care, and neurovegetative system. A traditional belief holds that applying the plant to the heads of newborns will ensure they grow up strong and vigorous. This speaks to the cultural significance and the myriad uses of the Hottentot Fig, which continues to be a plant of interest for its practical utility in these regions.

Recent studies have validated its significant anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, earning it the nickname “The Witch” for its efficacy in treating a wide range of inflammatory conditions such as fever, flu, various inflammations, and more. It is also a “first aid plant” because its leaf extract can soothe stings from insects and jellyfish.

hottentot fig
The Hottentot Fig excels in harsh conditions, growing in areas with poor soil quality like rocky coastlines and sandy beaches,

Invasive Species Concerns

While the Hottentot Fig is celebrated for its benefits, it is also considered an invasive species in some regions. It competes aggressively for space with native plant species, potentially smothering protected habitats such as dunes and vegetated coastal cliffs.

Hybrid species can exacerbate these invasions, raising ecological concerns.

Differences between Mesembryanthemum and Carpobrotus

Both species are known as Ice plants but there are some differences. Mesembryanthemum generally features slightly smaller flowers and more slender leaves compared to Carpobrotus. The yellow variant of Mesembryanthemum has noticeably fatter leaves and larger flowers than other colors available in this species. Both plants are low-growing, carpet-forming succulents, but these distinct traits help differentiate them in appearance and horticultural use.

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