MYSTERY PLANT: Annual blooms all summer, into fall

  • Thursday, September 5, 2013

Our little weed has several related cultivated varieties, but the cultivars always have bigger flowers. LINDA LEE/USC HERBARIUM

 
 If only the flowers were a little bigger!
Five brilliant pink petals emerge from an inconspicuous green calyx. Each vibrant blossom contains about 10-12 prominent stamens, each with a bright yellow anther. The style is divided at its summit into a number of branches, usually five or six, and these radiate outward, forming a sort of star-like pattern. This beautiful little flower is hard to miss when fully open, and that occurs on sunny days, as the blooms don’t like cloudy or rainy weather. Once the flowers are open, though, the petals don’t last long, and after about one day the petals and the rest of the flower sort of sag away into a little mess, this eventually drying up and basically disappearing. What’s left would be a rounded capsule, plump and green, and only about half an inch long. The round capsule opens in an unusual way: instead of breaking open down the sides along lines (like most capsules), this has the top half separate cleanly, like a small, pointed lid. (Or like the pointy cap of a tiny garden elf.) There are plenty of really small, black seeds inside, and once the lid is off the capsule, the seeds sprinkle out quickly. These seeds are readily spread, being so small, and it is for this reason that the plants get around easily.
This species has a wide distribution in the United States, found commonly from Arizona to the Carolinas, and sneaking into Tennessee and Virginia. It’s an annual, blooming all summer and into the fall, spreading by those little seeds, and could reasonably be expected to eventually end up almost everywhere in the warmer parts of the world. When it first spouts, it produces bright green leaves that are more or less flat. As the plants get bigger, the leaves produced are almost cylindrical, bright green, and a bit pointed at the tips. The stems may be flat on the ground, or somewhat elevated, thus forming patches.
This plant has about 10 close relatives in North America, and there are plenty of additional ones elsewhere in the world. Some have yellow flowers rather than pink ones. Some of them are popular as a food source, and the fresh leaves are frequently used raw and salads, or cooked in soups. You might notice a similarity between the flower pictured here, and with those of certain hanging-basket plants you can buy at a garden shop. This is no accident. Our little weed has several related cultivated varieties, but the cultivars always have bigger flowers. And more of them.
So, our beautiful little weed will have to be happy showing off its gorgeous flowers way down on the ground, several feet below most people’s eye level. Most people would only pay attention to it while pulling it out of the garden and flinging it onto the compost. But the flowers really are pretty. You’ll need a hand lens to see them closely, as this flower will never make it into a corsage. (Photo by Linda Lee.)
 
Answer: “Pink purslane,” “Kiss-me-quick,” Portulaca pilosa
 
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.
 

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