A spreading thing that addresses spreading things

A discussion followed by a short neighborhood walk with Alicia Escott, Amber Hasselbring, Suzanne Husky, and myself in the context of Escott’s larger project Another Brief History of the Sunset.

Suzanne and I harvested and experimented with ice plant, a rampant botanical figure that climbs all over the dunes of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, and all along the coasts and cliffs of Central to Northern California. We considered the plant as food and medicine. We talked about the designation of the term invasive, and considered more nuanced terms for plants that did not reflect nationalistic and colonial designations. We considered white settler nostalgia for a pre-colonial ecology, the delicate ecology of the Outer Sunset, and the history of ice plant, or Carpobrotus edulis. This plant is known by many names, such as the South African titles of Hotentot Fig, and Vygies, South Africa being where it is considered to be from.

My training in western medicinal herbalism teaches me to consider how the habit of a plant informs a practitioner as to what it does in the body. This is known as the doctrine of signatures, first elaborated upon by Discorides, widely expanded upon by my teacher Matthew Wood. With the ice plant, we see something that “spreads like wildfire” across the dunes and coasts of California. Interestingly, folks living in fire prone areas plant hotentot fig around their houses to to protect them from forest fires. It is also used extensively in South Africa for (topical and internal) fungal infections, thrush, bacterial infections, and cancer. It makes a good succus. It is a spreading things that helps to stop spreading things. This is a classic example of the doctrine of signatures at work.

For our discussion and walk, Suzanne and I pickled the leaves, which are long, succulent-seeming protrusions from the main stem, and we made a compote from the figs — the fruit that develops from the inferior ovary beneath the spent flower. Food as medicine.

The taste of the pickled leaves is acquired, and puckers the mouth (due to an abundance of tannins in the plant), but now I find myself craving it’s unique flavor and mouthfeel.


Many thanks to Alicia Escott for the invitation to begin to think about this plant, and a genealogy of use.