Photo by Remi Riordan

Conquest and Overgrowth

Ice plants are ubiquitous with California shorelines, but few know that they are an invasive species permanently altering the ecosystem.

Records from an 18th century Spanish expedition to coastal California detailed the exquisite landscape; “There were plentiful bears, redwood forests that seem to go on forever, fields carpeted with wildflowers, and numerous wildfires burning along the coast.” The ‘explorers’ also known as ‘conquistadors’ were soldiers of the Spanish empire who sailed around the world colonizing and pillaging everywhere they landed. The dynamic beauty featured in the landscape was mistaken for wilderness, untouched and uncared for by the human hand. The Spanish ignored the fact that indigenous people were fastidiously tending the terrain, co-creating an environment that serviced them and also the native plants and animals that lived with it. After the Spaniards had overtaken they outlawed prescribed burning, a practice used by natives for centuries to manage forests and replaced it with damaging agricultural practices. The changes ushered in profound transitions in landscape that would alter California’s countryside forever. 

Today, as commuters drive along the snaking road systems in Los Angeles, there are no signs of verdant fields filled with wildflowers and edible botanics. The environment has been designed through both curated measures and arbitrary choices. Palm trees are situated bluntly between medians to conjure an ideal landscape while ice plants form spiky green carpets underneath the guardrails beside exit and entrance ramps. 

Colonizers remade the landscape with vain decisions that set the scene for today’s deprived ecosystems. Tracing the unmistakable correlation between invasive species and colonial land management can help us recognize contemporary structures that upheave native systems. 

In 1760, vast unrelenting metropolises had not yet been chiseled into the face of the continent. Instead, the Pacific Ocean embraced a shoreline that held fields of ecological wonder. Coastal tribes such as the Ohlone tended carefully to grasslands to ensure survival of specific grasses they would use to create baskets with. Indigenous peoples cared deeply for the land and in turn it cared for them.  

On the Pacific coast, Spanish colonizers embedded multiple modalities of extraction, many of which continue to exhaust the environment. After the Spanish cleared plots of land for agricultural purposes, the discovery of gold veins in the middle of the nineteenth century led to an increased demand for timber to house miners and build railroads. The railroads were constructed by Asian migrants, who were hired for little pay and worked in harsh conditions. 

At first, the rail engineers didn’t see a way around building tracks on the sandy dunes that adorned the coast. They didn’t yet know that dunes were prone to quickly eroding under the hefty weight of the railroad ties and steel. This was an enormous obstacle for the engineers and their corporate bosses, who were trying to capitalize on each new extractive industry.

California’s landscape is constantly in flux. The last couple centuries it has witnessed multiple transformations.  Seismic activity ruptures the crust like a patchwork quilt splitting at the most prominent seams. The incessant hunger of the ocean erodes cliffsides, leaving large gaps between seafloor and seawall. 

The construction of the railroads on a landscape that was constantly changing proved challenging. After multiple blowouts, engineers brought in a plant from South Africa called the Ice Plant or the Sea Fig, in an effort to stabilize soil around the tracks. South Africa has a comparable climate to the coast of California but not much was known about these plants. Most of the work that is carried out in the pursuit of capital is haphazard and results in the eradication of environments and people. 

The ice plant ploy failed to stabilize the railroads, instead it worsened and workers were forced to reposition the tracks away from the dunes to sit on more stable ground. Ice plants are similar to kelp in the way that they grow very quickly. In all other ways, they are different. Kelp creates a sanctuary habitat for native species, whereas ice plants conquer and destroy native ecosystems. Their tentacles spread over the sand and act as a weighted blanket that pulls on the top layer of soil, increasing erosion. When the tracks were repositioned to a more sturdy section, engineers forgot about the ice plants. Their limbs continued to stretch, grow and overtake coastal habitats. 

Today, if you take a drive anywhere within thirty miles of the coast you will be hard pressed to find a place where ice plants have not visibly colonized the land. They are a constant reminder of a past that was forged through acquisition and neglect. The fever green plants are a piece of evidence that testifies to the invasive nature of capitalism — to its ignorance, its displacement of enchantment. An absent minded addition to the California landscape, the ice plant has crept along over time, choking out what could have been.

The plants were brought over in the early 1900’s via boat, from a shoreline at the opposite end of the world. The global nursery trade is a major culprit in the spreading of invasive species. Nurseries in the U.S. are stocked with species from islands in Asia and other parts around the world that have vastly different ecologies. The species are sold as decorative and ‘exotic’ without attention to how they will affect a local ecosystem. ‘Sudden Oak Death’ was unknowingly introduced this way in 1995, it developed as a pathogen in the soil of an ornamental nursery species in Europe. 

It is now understood to be responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of oak trees in California. The oaks slowly die, becoming more weak and fragile, making forests especially vulnerable to wildfire. Ice plants have carried out a similar destruction in dune habitats through making them unlivable for plants and animals. 

Ice plants are still sold in nurseries as a ‘filler’ plant to brighten up home gardens. Prospective buyers are not warned that this plant is a detriment to pollinator populations and if not handled properly can take over entire yards and spread beyond. 

Ice plants extract the resources in an area, they change the chemistry of the environment and they are relentless. Ice plants degrade the structure of dunes. Healthy sand dunes are constantly being remade by the breath of the wind. But a thick carpeting of ice plants inhibits natural movement, which makes the dunes a static and unviable place for other species to survive. Ice plants also heighten the soil salt content, leaving a lasting residue even after they have been removed. 

The plant’s callous legacy continues even after it’s gone. But it is possible to disrupt this destructive legacy by decolonizing the flora and removing the pernicious plant. Reintroducing native species that flourish with the dune environment could halt the continued erosion and give way to healthier soils and happier pollinators.  

Before the construction of the railroads, the dunes of California were fragrant with the native minty aroma of purple sage. California buckwheat shot from the ground with white and red flowers, a natural display of fireworks. Along the El Segundo dunes in Santa Monica Bay, the ice plant has decimated coastal buckwheat which is the main source of food for the endangered species, El Segundo blue butterfly. Purple sage sparsely dots the hillside barely emitting a scent. A precarious ecosystem is pushed to its limits by a dominant species that outcompetes with the natural environment. 

In William Preston’s, “Serpent in the Garden: Environmental Change in Colonial California” he discusses the ways in which the ‘New World’ was uniquely vulnerable to invasive species. The Eastern hemisphere had developed a large set of noxious weeds and parasites that had developed adaptations throughout time. When introduced to the Americas, they outcompeted the native species and took over. Colonizers “departed from their lands of origin with biological advantages that were important weapons of imperialism,” states Preston. The inhabitants of the ‘Old World’ had been in close proximity with domesticated plants and animals which had exposed them to certain parasites. By the time they arrived in the ‘New World’ the colonizers had largely developed immunity. Parts of the west coast, in particular California, had been geographically isolated by desert and mountain barriers and were underprepared when confronted by Old World ecosystems. 

Rabid imperialism uprooted native plant systems that had been geographically protected for thousands of years. Upheaving the native bio flora and fauna meant that indigneous people faced extreme challenges to access food and medicine they had relied on for centuries. Small alterations on the landscape often have vast consequences. Colonial stowaways, the invasive plant species hidden on boats amongst plants and animals, disrupted carefully calibrated, socially significant ecosystems up and down the Pacific coast.

Capitalist railroad barons introduced ice plants at the turn of the twentieth century, in a more contemporary cloak of environmental suppression. The legacy of casual interference in native ecosystems continues today and is highly concentrated in ports that see shipments from around the world. The lines can be carefully traced between colonial ventures and the alteration of ecosystems. These paths of invasive species indicate areas of human oversight. The tracts of ice plants that have taken over most every dunescape in California are a breadcrumb trail indicting colonizers for their ignorant, if not malicious, ‘management’ of the land. 

The destruction caused by introduced species provides a valuable reminder for those who seek to forge a path forward for the future of our ecosystems. It reminds us that our planet is equally fragile as it is durable. The ice plant is not to blame, it’s the overarching structures of capitalism and exploitation that are to blame for the continued erosion of our shores. California’s coastal ecosystem is in deep disrepair, but decolonizing the flora and fauna — and a larger project of decolonization — can allow us to redress the harms of the past and grow towards a more just future.