This plant can help save Low­coun­try beaches— and give a salty crunch to sal­ads

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Lowcountry Life - BY VICKY MCMIL­LAN

Sea purslane (Se­su­vium por­tu­la­cas­trum) is a com­mon na­tive plant — found just above the high tide line — that helps build the dunes on our Low­coun­try beaches.

Al­though su­per­fi­cially re­sem­bling the col­or­ful purslanes (Por­tu­laca spp.) sold in gar­den stores, sea purslane is more closely re­lated to a large fam­ily of suc­cu­lent plants called stone plants or car­pet weeds. Most are na­tive to south­ern Africa. Sea purslane, how­ever, is widely dis­trib­uted in coastal ar­eas through­out much of the world.

Like gar­den purslanes, sea purslane grows as a sprawl­ing mat of thick, juicy stems and suc­cu­lent green leaves. Dur­ing warmer months it pro­duces pink­ish-pur­ple flow­ers that are pol­li­nated by bees and other in­sects. The flow­ers give rise to cap­sules con­tain­ing tiny black seeds. Some sci­en­tists have sug­gested that the seeds are dis­persed by ad­her­ing to the bod­ies of shore­birds, or by lodg­ing in cracks of wood or other ob­jects car­ried by ocean waves.

Stud­ies have shown that even after 56 days of im­mer­sion in sea­wa­ter, sea purslane seeds can still ger­mi­nate. But it’s prob­a­bly through veg­e­ta­tive re­pro­duc­tion that sea purslane has spread so widely around the world. Its buoy­ant, salt-tol­er­ant stems break off eas­ily, and many are swept up by the sea. Bits and pieces of sea purslane may travel far and wide via waves and storms, wash­ing up on other beaches.

Once de­posited on land, these stem frag­ments send out tiny roots and even­tu­ally give rise to spread­ing masses of new plants. Sea purslane tol­er­ates, even thrives in, habi­tats that are in­hos­pitable to most other plants. It’s re­sis­tant to salty sub­strates, high sur­face tem­per­a­tures, low nu­tri­ent lev­els, and chang­ing mois­ture con­di­tions. Its waxy stems and leaves re­tard wa­ter loss and stand up to wind and salt spray. The plant can even sur­vive tem­po­rary burial by wind-blown sand. In fact, mats of sea purslane trap sand par­ti­cles, help­ing dunes to grow.

Eco­log­i­cally, sea purslane plays an im­por­tant role as a “pi­o­neer” species on beaches, and it’s cur­rently used ex­ten­sively in dune restora­tion projects.

The species also has a long his­tory of culi­nary and medic­i­nal use. Leaves, stems, flow­ers, and fruits are all ed­i­ble and can be added raw to sal­ads, where they re­port­edly give a crunchy, if salty, fla­vor. Cook­ing the stems and leaves in sev­eral changes of wa­ter helps re­move some of the salt and turns the plant into a ba­sic boiled green veg­etable. In folk medicine, sea purslane has been used to treat a va­ri­ety of con­di­tions and dis­or­ders, from fever and kid­ney prob­lems to lep­rosy, toothaches, and scurvy. Stud­ies are un­der­way to fur­ther in­ves­ti­gate ther­a­peu­tic uses of this species.

Fu­ture re­search may also fo­cus on the molec­u­lar ba­sis of the high stress tol­er­ance shown by sea purslane to the ex­treme en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions un­der which it sur­vives. Such knowl­edge may have far-reach­ing ef­fects on the de­vel­op­ment of more stress-re­sis­tant crops.

Sub­mit­ted photo

Sea purslane plays an im­por­tant role as a “pi­o­neer” species on beaches, and it’s used ex­ten­sively in dune restora­tion projects.

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