Europe and Central Asia
4 Apr 2016

This plant's funny name belies its dangerous nature

The Hottentot Fig or Ice Plant is an invasive alien species. Photo: Jacintha Iluch Valero/Flickr
By Isabel Fagundes

The Hottentot fig is as beautiful as it is harmful. Native to South Africa, it is recognisable by its large yellow or light pink flowers and its unique other names: Ice Plant or Pigface.

The Hottentot Fig was introduced in several countries, including around the Mediterranean Sea, for medicinal and ornamental purposes and to control soil erosion. However, its impressive propagation and seed production rates led to the quick colonisation of vast areas, and the Hottentot Fig became an invasive species in Portugal. It is currently considered one of the 100 worst invasive species on the planet.

Just how destructive can a plant called the Hottentot Fig be? By growing uncontrollably, the species dominates the ground completely, forming dense vegetation carpets that are practically impenetrable by native plants. The soil covered by this plant suffers chemical alterations, which in turn affects the germination, survival, growth and reproduction of the native vegetation.

The history of the Hottentot Fig on the Berlengas – an archipelago off the Portuguese coast – goes back to the 1950s. At first, it was planted in fishermen's neighbourhoods. However, without any limits on its propagation, it rapidly spread throughout the island, helped by optimal environmental conditions, and seed dispersal by the Black Rat, Common Rabbit and Yellow-legged Gull.

Volunteers have been working since 2014 to eradicate the Hottentot Fig from the Berlengas. Photo: Toni Mullet

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The Hottentot Fig is a major threat to the conservation of rare plants such as the Hoop Petticoat Daffodil, and endemic plants such as the Berlengas Sea Thrift, whose slow growth is no match for the fig. The Hottentot Fig has also taken over many of the cavities available for Cory’s Shearwater to nest in, and their dense leaves and strong roots make it impossible for them to dig new nests in the soil.

Since the beginning of the LIFE Berlengas project, SPEA (BirdLife in Portugal), with the help of its partners and many volunteers has been removing this invasive species from Berlenga island, especially in the slopes of the Carreiro do Mosteiro, the camping area and in the Flandres area. This removal, which is done manually, is carried out along the contour lines. The removed plants are rolled up and left to dry on top of the Hottentog Fig carpets directly below. 40 volunteers and technicians have been working to remove the species, and SPEA aims to remove all the Hottentot Figs by 2018 and finally see the slopes of the island of Berlenga adorned with its native vegetation.


Life Berlengas spot from SPEA on Vimeo.

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