SEA PURSLANE PLANT
BOTANICAL NAME: Sesuvium Portulacastrum
HAWAIIAN NAME: Akulikuli
OTHER COMMON NAMES: Sea Purslane, Seaside Purslane, Shoreline Purslane, Salty Nibble, Dampalit,
PLANT RELATIVES: Ice Plant
EDIBLE PARTS: Leaves, Stems, Flowers
Sea Purslane is found worldwide along tropical coastlines. Close to where I live on Maui, it hugs and meanders over the windy high cliffs near the water’s edge. I appreciate the striking contrast it makes to black lava rock, with its nubbly, green carpet. I also value that the species portulacastrum is indigenous to Hawaii. It’s remarkable tolerance to wind, drought, and salt make it a useful groundcover. Not only is it edible, but it has unique qualities that benefit animals and the environment.
For example, sea purslane has been used for restoration in the North-Western Hawaiian Island chain. Did you know there are actually over one hundred Hawaiian Islands? That’s if you count every uninhabited atoll, islet, and coral reef that make up the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Well, in 2014, conservationists planted cuttings in a particular area on Kure Atoll. They did this to support a small Laysan duck population. They knew this indigenous plant would provide a foraging habitat for the highly endangered ducks. Most importantly, it would cleanse heavy metals from the birds’ water source. Because sea purslane can live in marshy areas, it provided an answer to the pollution left by previous Coast Guard activity.
Likewise, there is a fascinating piece of history that describes sea purslane’s food value to humans. During World War II, there was a manual called “Emergency Food Plants and Poisonous Plants of the Islands of the Pacific.” The War Department listed seaside purslane in the manual. They only recommended a few wild plants as survival food. Sea purslane was one. Thus, if a soldier was separated from his unit, he knew how to identify and cook it.
Do you wonder how people prepare and eat sea purslane these days? I was surprised when I came across references to foraging and recipes from England and Ireland. Now wait, you might be thinking. England is not a tropical climate. And you are exactly right. It turns out varied species live outside the tropical zone that resemble sesuvium portulacastrum both in appearance and flavor.
In California, you can find a species called sesuvium verrucosum. However, in England, not only does sea purslane belong to a different species than tropical portulacastrum, but it also belongs to an entirely different plant family. Isn’t that amazing? I find it remarkable that plants from the Fig-Marigold and Amaranth family can resemble each other so much. If you harvest “sea purslane” in chilly old England, it is bound to be halimione portulacoides.
Would you like to know how to tell the two plant families apart? In this case, there is an easy way. Just look for singular pinkish to purple flowers on sea purslane growing in the tropics and Americas. Then look for clusters of yellowish flowers on the similar-looking shoreline plant enjoyed in England and Ireland. With your curiosity satisfied, you can enjoy any of the salty plants referred to as sea purslane in the recipes below.