Sea purslane (Halimione portulacoides). Learn about foraging this fantastic evergreen perennial wild food.
Plants that are able to be harvested all year round, such as the salty sea purslane, are some of my most treasured wild foods to forage..
This plant is a member of the completely edible beetroot family (Chenopodiaceae), and as such it’s a relative of those other great gourmet foraged foods – sea beet and marsh samphire.
Perennial crops are intrinsic components in successful nature-based-design. They are also some of the best species for foragers to concentrate on. The numerous longer-growing plants are of great value in the garden, allotment and permaculture plot due to their low input and potential high yields.
These traits also apply in the wild stock, and are typically what attract foragers. For foragers and gardeners alike, the array of perennials available point to the promise of repeated harvests throughout the years to come.
Where to look for Sea purslane
Sea purslane really is an unmistakeable plant and only found in a few habitats . It will form huge carpets by estuaries and on salt marshes, particularly loving the natural saline ecology between coastline, rivers and land.
Rooting just below the high tide mark, this plant, together with the various species of marsh samphire, plus sea aster, sea couch grass and a few others, help to stabilize the silt deposits from the ebb and flow of tides, essentially creating new land.
You can also occasionally find sea purslane on rocky coastal cliff shelves, although nowhere near in the same numbers as found on saltmarsh and estuaries.
Sea purslane botanical description.
Its fleshy, grey-green leaves can grow up to 6-7 cm long. They are elliptical-oval, found in opposite pairs, and are covered in mealy bladder hairs. These unicellular hairs appear as a dusty shiny coating, and are a typical feature of many plants within the family.
New stems are tender and pale green, older stems are brown and woody. The thin woody stems snap easily.
In late spring the thin flower stem appears, slowly revealing its tiny, alternately-spaced clusters of yellowish flowers.
The flower bracts are fleshy, and there are no sepals present. In the middle of the flower there are five stamens surrounding two stigma, which are attached to a single ovary.
Sea purslane grows where many plants cannot. As a lover of mud flats and salt marsh, it can often be found partially or wholly submerged for some of the day. To do this it employs three tricks.
Its roots have specialised air filled cells ( aerenchyma – cells with large internal vacuoles to facilitate the free movement of air.)
They have evolved cells which contain a higher internal concentration of salt in their cells, than is found in the adjoining salty water, thus enabling them by osmosis to take on board H2O.
Their fleshy leaves are covered in a waxy cuticle layer of cells, as are many estuary specialists. This helps prevent desiccation from the often violent saline wind.
For the gourmet food lover this all results in a taste sensation, especially from spring harvested leaves. Sea purslane is crunchy, juicy, and salty, with a hint of sweetness.
Another interesting development in recent years has been the exploration of the plant’s secondary metabolites by the cosmetics industry, searching for novel anti ageing properties.
Contemporary edible use of sea purslane
The leaves are a versatile ingredient. It is a plant that enhances vegetarian, lamb and fish dishes. It can be used as a stand alone vegetable dish, or as a condiment, being particularly lovely when pickled.
As with many wild plants, sea purslane is high in vitamins and minerals. Moreover it contains significant amounts of omega fatty acids.
I like to ferment the leaves in a salt brine with approximately 3-4% salt, and especially like them preserved in a slightly sweetened cider vinegar, alongside some red peppercorns and a few mustard seeds. Check out my recipe on the foraged food page
With the vinegar pickle I heat the spices and vinegar for a few minutes before packing the leaves into small leaves. The red peppercorns give the pickle a lovely festive look. The plant can also be deployed as a stuffing, a garnish, or blended into mayonnaise and sauces.
When harvesting, you will need to take a knife or scissors. If trying to use just your hands to harvest, you may find that the stems come up from the soft mud. Oh, and ideally, you will take a friend. Mudflats can be very unforgiving environments, and you cannot take them lightly.
Although the plant can be harvested all year round, spring is the best time. During these months of fast new growth, all you need to do is pinch out the fresh new tops. In winter, and for speedy harvesting, I tend to harvest the plant further down into the woody stem, and then stripping the leaves off at home. Try and cut the plant at just above a node because this is best for the plant, as the new buds directly under the node can soon get away.
Sea purslane is one of the featured plants in my ‘foragers friends’ cards, available in my website shop, together with my foragers playing cards and ‘top trumps’ style card game.