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Habitat and Distribution
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a common plant of open, sunny areas, such as gardens, yards, and roadsides. It’s not picky about its habitat— you can find it growing in gravel, sidewalk cracks, disturbed soil, and other “waste places.” It is commonly found across the lower 48 states, Hawaii, and all the southern Canadian provinces.
One of the keys to identifying purslane is its fleshiness. The stems are thick and succulent, reddish in color, and spread into dense mats up to 20 inches across. The leaves are succulent as well, and grow in an alternate fashion on the stem, though they may be crowded enough to appear opposite or whorled. Leaves are spatula-shaped, with the broadest point above the middle, up to 1/2 inch wide, and typically 3/8 to 2/3 inch long. They are smooth, green in color, and may have a reddish tinge around the edges.
Flowers are small and and yellow, 1/8 to 1/4 inch across, with 4 to 6 notched petals. Two or four sepals grow behind the flower. The flowers grow singly or in small clusters.
Seeds grow inside small oval to urn-shaped pods, up to 1/3 inch long. These pods have a seam around the middle which eventually splits open, revealing many tiny black seeds.
Spurges (Euphorbia spp.) are other sprawling plants with reddish coloring. Many different species of spurges can be found in the continental US, Hawaii, and southern Canada from Quebec west to British Columbia. They are poisonous and should not be consumed. The most consistent distinguishing characteristic is that the leaves and stems of spurges exude a white latex when broken; purslane does not. Furthermore, the leaves of spurges are not succulent, while those of purslane are. Oftentimes the leaves and stems of spurges are densely to sparsely hairy, while those of purslane are hairless or possess only a few inconspicuous hairs.