Sea Purslane

Sesuvium portulacastrum

sea purslane

Sea purslane, photographed at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge Jupiter Island Unit, Hobe Sound, Martin County, in September 2016.

Sea purslane, Sesuvium portulacastrum, is a bit of a surprise. It is a beach plant found in warmer parts of the world, including Florida. It is a succulent, with thick stems and leaves.

Its flowers are star-shaped, small but pretty, maybe a half-inch to three-quarters-of-an-inch across. They run the spectrum from various shades of pink to lavender to purple.

Thing is, sea purslane has no petals. Zip. Zilch. None. The beauty comes in large measure from a part of the flower that usually is on the plain side: the sepals. These are the outer parts of the flower, the parts that cover the flower before it opens. Look closely at the photo above and you'll see the green outline of the sepals.

Sea purslane is found on beach dunes above the wrack line, usually among the first plants actually growing on the beach. It’s also found along saltwater, brackish and freshwater marshes. For what it’s worth, we’ve seen it exclusively along beaches and other areas near saltwater.

In Florida, its range extends through mostly coastal counties in all parts of the state, the Panhandle, the Peninsula, North Florida, South Florida.

sea purslane

Sea purslane is also found throughout the Southeast, from extreme southeastern North Carolina, through South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Oddly enough, the U.S. Department Agriculture’s PLANTS Database includes Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania as part of sea purslane’s range. As the theory goes, it probably got there from the bilge of a ship.

Not so surprisingly, it’s also found in Hawaii, where it's known as akulikuli and provides shelter for invertebrates and is a source of food for shorebirds. The range is determined by vouchered, or scientifically verified, specimens growing wild.

Beyond our shores, sea purslane is found in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, South America and in other warmer places around the globe.

Sea purslane itself is a low-lying, usually sprawling plant capable of forming large, mat-like patches. It tops out at maybe six to eight inches tall, but its spread can be as much as six feet. As noted above, it is a succulent, with thick leaves and stems. Leaves are arranged opposite each other; their long and relatively narrow. The stems can be various shades of red. The flowers are borne at leaf axils, the point where leaves meet the stem.

As with beach plants generally, it sea purslane plays an important role in stabilizing beach dunes as it catches sand between its leaves and stems. It is a halophyte, meaning it's tolerant of salt water.

One other surprising fact: the leaves and stems are edible. In fact, the War Department (now the Department of Defense) during World War II, included sea purslane in a list of "emergency foods" available to troops in the Pacific islands. We've seen various opinions on the saltiness of sea purslane, from too much to just right. For those who find it a tad too much on the salty side, it can be tamed by cooking. It can also be pickled. Even when the plant is grown away from salt water, it still has that salty taste. One absolute positive: sea purslane is rich in vitamin C.

As might be expected, sea purslane is both sun and drought tolerant, needing little in the way of water. It is offered for sale by nurseries specializing in Florida native plants, and it can be used as a ground cover appropriately in coastal landscapes. It is a nectar plant for the very rare Miami blue butterfly.

Sea purslane is also known as shoreline seapurslane, cencilla and also spelled sea-purslane. It is a member of Aizoaceae, the iceplant family.

Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge Jupiter Island Unit

Photo Gallery — Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.