When I was browsing my seed catalogs this past January, I was looking for some greens that I could grow in the heat of summer. I found two varieties of purslane in the catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Because I’d heard purslane was good for you, I ordered both varieties. Little did I know just how good it is for you and how awesome it tastes.
Common Purslane, or Portulaca oleracea, is also known by the nicknames vedolaga, pigweed, duckweed, fatweed, little hogweed, or pursley. It is actually a succulent in the Portulacaceae family with over 40 cultivated varieties. It can be planted from seed, but is often found in the wild. The wild varieties grow horizontally in flat, circular mats about 16 inches wide. Cultivated varieties grow more upright and have larger leaves and are more tender than the wild varieties. Easily naturalized, purslane is considered an invasive weed in some areas.
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint its exact historic origin, several sources state that it is native to Persia (Iran) and was used over 2,000 years ago. It has been widely used as a medicinal aid as well as food in Eastern Mediterranean countries. Seeds found in Greece were dated to the 7th century BCE. Purslane was also named as one of several summer pot herbs in writings from the 4th century BCE. It was considered such a great medicinal that Pliny the Elder suggested wearing purslane as an amulet against evil.
From the Middle East, purslane was distributed throughout North Africa, India, and Australasia. How purslane reached the Americas is unknown, but there is some evidence of it in the Ontario area in 1430-1489 CE. It arrived in North America sometime in the Pre-Columbian era.
Purslane has been used to treat insect and snake bites, boils, sores, and pain from bee stings. It is also an extremely nutritious plant to eat. (The leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds are all edible.) Purslane contains more Omega-3 (especially ALA) than any other leafy vegetable plant. It also has an extraordinary amount of EPA (found in fish, flaxseed, and some algae). Not only is it a good source of these heart-healthy oils, it also has 10-20 times more melatonin (a natural sleep aid) than any other fruit or vegetable. If that’s not enough, purslane is also rich in antidepressant substances such as phenylalanine and tryptophan.
One cup of fresh purslane leaves is high in Vitamin E and contains 25% of the RDA of Vitamin C. With 1,320 IUs of Vitamin A (44% of the RDA), 300-400 mg ALA (one type of Omega-3), and high amounts of magnesium, calcium, iron, riboflavin, potassium, phosphorous and manganese, purslane is a treasure of nutrition.
One word of caution. As with spinach and some other green, leafy vegetables, purslane contains a high amount of oxylates, which can make some people ill when eaten in large quantities. However, cooking can remove the oxylates.
If you wish to plant purslane, rather than harvest it in the wild, it is a plant that needs minimal care. As a succulent, purslane can tolerate poor, compacted soil and drought conditions. However, it prefers loose, nutrient-rich, sandy soil with a pH of 5.5-7.0. Because it thrives in summer heat, it is an excellent crop for Southern gardens.
Sow purslane seed in shallow trenches 4-6 inches apart, and cover with no more than 1/4 inch of soil. Keep the soil moist until the plants have sprouted. Once the plants are about an inch tall, they will need little more attention other than harvesting.
Purslane flowers throughout the growing season and can produce flowers as early as three weeks after seedlings appear. The small yellow flowers appear on the tips of the plant and usually open in the morning hours, and seed pods develop within a week or two of flowering. Unless you want your purslane to spread, always harvest before the plant goes to seed. One plant can produce over 200,000 seeds! And no, that is NOT a decimal error! The seeds are very tiny, like grains of sand, and they can stay viable in the soil for almost 40 years. Purslane can also spread through stems that get rooted or roots that spread; if you wish to pull it up, be sure to get the entire taproot.
Purslane can be harvested about four to six weeks after germination. If you wish to harvest on a continuing basis (rather than pull the entire plant), cut the tips of the plant one to eight inches down, depending on the plant size. Just be sure to harvest before the plant goes to seed. Harvest for the stems as well as the leaves. Because purslane is a succulent, its stems and leaves are juicy and crisp. The stems have a slight peppery after taste, while the leaves taste like a cross between a cucumber and lettuce. The leaves can also have a slight lemony aftertaste.
Purslane has the highest moisture content if harvested in the morning. Yet, it will also be the most tangy in the morning because of the malic acid produced overnight. During the day, the plant utilizes sunlight to turn the malic acid into glucose, so harvesting it in the afternoon will give you a less tangy, more sweet taste. It just won’t be quite as crisp as when it’s harvested in the morning.
FROM GARDEN TO KITCHEN
One way to eat purslane is fresh in a salad. My first meal with purslane was what I call a garden-foraged salad. It’s May so I didn’t have much to harvest yet. I did have a cucumber and some yellow squash from the farmer’s market, and I foraged in my spring garden to complete my salad – green purslane, golden purslane, basil leaves, and curly parsley. Sprinkled with a little shredded parmesan cheese and homemade Italian dressing, the salad was awesome.
As a note, purslane is high in pectin, so it’s a great thickener for soups and stews.
Because eating large quantities of fresh purslane can increase oxylates in the body, you should cook it now and again. Here are a few recipes to try – fresh, cooked, and pickled.
I can’t wait to try purslane in all these recipes. Had I known what a nutritional powerhouse this plant was, I would’ve planted it in my garden years ago. If you’re looking for a great summer green, purslane is it!
Are you growing it in your garden?