Succulent and sun loving, these creeping plants have sumptuous flowers.
Most portulacas in our gardens, not that they are at all common, belong to P. grandiflora. It is a creeping plant with fleshy, tubular leaves with white wool at their base.
Robinson was a fan – ‘This bright little annual … has been introduced many years from its native home in Chili, and few Chilean plants have spread so widely all over the world. It seems as happy under the tropical sun as in an Englilsh garden where no other annual excels it in brilliancy, delicacy, and diversity of colour… One can see by its growth that it is a child of the sun, and that is why one finds it so fine in gardens in the parched plains of India and Egypt, as well as throughout North America….Forty years ago M. Lemoine, of Nancy, raised many beautiful double sorts, to which he gave names, but it was soon found useless to keep named sorts, so one buys seed now in mixed colours,..’
It is commonly called moss rose and the mat of bright green foliage does indeed look rather moss-like and the five-petalled flowers, in bright colours, do resemble roses. The flowers have a satin texture and come in a vibrant range of colours including bicolours and doubles, which seem to need more heat than the singles to open properly – this is indeed, as Robinson noted, a plant for a warm, sunny spot.
The tiny, shiny seeds can be sown in spring and the seedlings, which are very brittle, grow quickly but they need good light and must never be overwatered – adding grit or perlite to the medium is definitely necessary in my experience.
Plant breeders have been busy with these too and there are interesting, vegetative cultivars, some with contrasting centres to the flowers and larger flowers, such as the ‘Happy Hour’ series. These are sold as young plants in spring but at a greater cost than growing from seed, which will still give you a lot of pleasure.
There are possibly 100 species of portulaca and the other species that is grown as an ornamental is P. umbraticola which has smaller flowers, always single as far as I know, and with flat, but succulent leaves. I have not seen it often in northern Europe but it is widely planted in the south where it is commonly used as a landscape plant.
And I can’t finish without mentioning edible purslane (P. oleracea). I have usually grown this in the golden-leaved form and it is one of my favourite summer salad leaves. It is a branching plant with flat leaves and has a crunchy texture and a sour taste because of the oxalic acid it contains. For this reason you should not eat masses of the stuff but a few sprigs certainly bring a salad to life. In theory it is easy to grow but I often have trouble getting it to germinate and I never get as many plants as I hope for. Luckily, those that do grow then produce masses of foliage. Not everyone thinks it is wonderful and William Cobbett (1763-1835), British member of Parliament, wrote that it was ‘eaten by Frenchmen and pigs when they can get nothing else.’ If you disagree with him and like the taste it is comforting to know that it is the rochest vegetable source of alpha-linolenic acid a source of omega-3.