The ice plant, which is native to southern and eastern Africa, is named for the small, transparent bladders that cover its leaves and make the plant look like it’s covered with frozen dew. These bladders are called epidermal bladder cells; they are modified versions of hair-like structures that cover the surfaces of many plants. Epidermal bladder cells act as numerous small reservoirs that are especially helpful during times of drought and high salinity. They retain water and also sequester excess salt to keep it away from tissues that are more sensitive to high salinity.
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“Southern Africa is the headquarters of a vast and varied family, the mesembryanthemums…One species retains liquid in tiny bladders on the surface of each bloated leaf that glisten in the sunshine and so give it the name, apt though improbable in these sun-baked lands, of ‘ice plant’.” (Attenborough 1995:278)
The Private Life of PlantsAugust 21, 1995
“The aerial surfaces of the common or crystalline ice plant Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L., a halophytic, facultative crassulacean acid metabolism species, are covered with specialized trichome cells called epidermal bladder cells (EBCs). EBCs are thought to serve as a peripheral salinity and/or water storage organ to improve survival under high salinity or water deficit stress conditions. However, the exact contribution of EBCs to salt tolerance in the ice plant remains poorly understood. An M. crystallinum mutant lacking EBCs was isolated from plant collections mutagenized by fast neutron irradiation. Light and electron microscopy revealed that mutant plants lacked EBCs on all surfaces of leaves and stems…The EBC mutant also showed reduced leaf succulence and leaf and stem water contents compared with wild-type plants. Aerial tissues of wild-type plants had approximately 1.5-fold higher Na+ and Cl– content than the mutant grown under 400 mM NaCl for 2 weeks. Na+ and Cl– partitioning into EBCs of wild-type plants resulted in lower concentrations of these ions in photosynthetically active leaf tissues than in leaves of the EBC-less mutant, particularly under conditions of high salt stress…The EBC mutant showed significant impairment in plant productivity under salt stress as evaluated by seed pod and seed number and average seed weight. These results clearly show that EBCs contribute to succulence by serving as a water storage reservoir and to salt tolerance by maintaining ion sequestration and homeostasis within photosynthetically active tissues of M. crystallinum.” (Agarie et al. 2007:1957)