The Good Weed Series
Purslane (Portulaca oleraceav)
Figure 1: Purslane, Portulaca oleraceav, the good weed.
Caution: Always positively identify a plant before consuming. Sickness or death may occur from eating the wrong plant. Use a good reference book or website for identification such as Plant for a Future (www.pfaf.org) or (www.EatTheWeeds.com). Since purslane is so efficient at being able to extract healthy minerals from deep soils in undisturbed areas, it should be kept in mind that if purslane is growing in soils that might contain heavy metals, such as in dump sites or industrial areas, it could potentially accumulate undesirable minerals that could be unhealthy to ingest. When it comes to safely foraging wild foods, healthy soils equal healthy eating.
Purslane is one of the most ubiquitous weeds that pop up in vegetable gardens in Southern Nevada, and therefore, it’s also one of the most maligned, despite its great qualities. Few gardeners know that if they were to allow purslane to continue growing, they and their garden would benefit in three major ways:
- They would have to do a lot less weeding if they let the purslane grow;
- Most gardeners in this modern age are well aware of the benefits of companion planting, and along those lines, purslane acts as a companion weed that benefits the vegetables being tended around it, promoting a healthier and higher yield garden; and
- purslane is imminently edible, adding one more tasty and nutritious vegetable crop to harvest in their vegetable garden.
According to gardening literature, purslane is recognized as a companion plant for beans, corn, peppers, potatoes, squash, and tomatoes. Vegetables such as corn, which have relatively shallow roots, benefit from purslane by following the deeper roots of this weed down through the soil, thereby making soil nutrients available for the corn plant that were previously unobtainable (a process technically known as “ecological facilitation.”).
One of the big benefits of purslane to most vegetable crops is that its succulent stems and leaves grow in a fairly thick mat that act as a ground cover to help hold in moisture for the vegetable crops that are sprouting up through it and around it. The cooler, moist microclimate that a living purslane “mulch” creates is especially valuable in Nevada, where late Spring and Summer temperatures can be overly intense and require some mitigation for many vegetable plants.
Due to the penetrating depth of it roots, purslane is classified as a bio-accumulator, which means that it brings up and stores mineral nutrients from the soil that are too deep for most vegetables to reach. For this reason, purslane has been cited as containing the second-highest content of iron in the edible plant world. Therefore, at the end of the growing season for any vegetable garden, one should use the purslane that still remains as green manure by tilling it back into the soil where it can decompose and release its healthy nutrients up higher where next year’s shallow-rooted crops can take full advantage of the mineral gifts that purslane brings.
Not only does purslane accumulate iron, it has also been found to be high in calcium, magnesium, and potassium. When it comes to providing other nutrients for people, purslane is said to contain more Omega-3 fatty acids than kale or spinach or virtually any other green leafy vegetable. Purslane has also been found to be high in vitamins A, C, and E.
Figure 2: Purslane, Portulaca oleraceav, with its bright yellow flower.
People often wrongly assume that a plant that grows free and propagates without being purposely cultivated must not be that tasty to eat, even if it is nutritious. On the contrary, purslane is wonderfully edible and can be used in a wide variety of culinary and gourmet ways. Some purslane aficionados like to eat the plant raw, which is not a preference for the author of this article. Like okra and edible young cacti (nopales), purslane has a slight mucilaginous quality that can be a little off-putting when raw, though it is noticeably less mucilaginous than okra. When cooked, however, that same mucilaginous quality acts as a thickener, whether using the purslane to thicken soups and stews, salsas, vegetable-based sauces, or casseroles. Breaded and fried, then lightly salted, it makes a fried vegetable dish that is superior (in this author’s opinion) to fried zucchini. Sautéed and drizzled with some bacon fat and sprinkled with fresh bacon bits, then sprinkled with apple cider vinegar, it makes a fantastic side dish. In fact, any manner in which one can use young edible cacti “leaves” can produce delicious results with purslane. It is excellent baked with breadcrumbs, beaten eggs, onions, and cheese for an au gratin casserole.
During the latter stages of its growing season, the stems on purslane turn a pretty reddish color and can easily grow as thick around as one’s little finger. These crisp and juicy stems are perfect at this stage for using like small cucumbers to pickle in either a dill or sweet pickle juice, or simmer them into a relish. Purslane even has potential as a dessert.
Oddly enough, the tangy flavor in purslane fluctuates greatly according to the time of day it is picked. Throughout the night, purslane takes in carbon dioxide and transforms it into malic acid, which is the same ingredient that gives green apples their distinctive flavor. This is the reason why purslane is much tangier in taste in the morning than it is in the late afternoon, since purslane converts malic acid into glucose during the day. Accordingly, it would be possible for someone to chop up a batch of purslane into bite-sized pieces, parboil them to make sure they bake up tender, and then use them as a substitute for green apples in a two-crust pie containing raw sugar, cinnamon, butter, and all the other traditional ingredients of an old-fashioned American apple pie. So, with all this goodness, why isn’t purslane grown as a commercial crop? Actually, it is grown, harvested, and sold to consumers.
Yes, one can even benefit from purslane as a cash crop, where it is commonly found in farmer’s markets around the southwest, and goes by the name of verdolaga, which means green lake, a term that refers to the pond-like shape of the juicy jade-green leaves. An expensive Mediterranean cash crop is capers, so it’s potentially profitable to know that the round unripe seed pods of purslane have been used as a caper substitute. Medicinally, purslane has been used to soothe upset stomachs; and the cool, mucilaginous juice provides relief for insect bites and other skin irritations.
Unlike many of the commercial crops that it helps to support, there are no parts of purslane that are poisonous, which makes it a great vegetable for children to grow and harvest. The only potential hazard of purslane is also one of its strengths. If one is growing purslane in soils that are toxic with heavy metals, purslane can extract excess industrial effluent, as well as exceedingly high levels of salt from soils. In that case, one would want to pull the plant out of the ground at the end of its growing season and dispose of it, rather than let it decompose to inadvertently release the absorbed toxins back into the ground. Truly, purslane is a good weed.
A good reference for edible weeds is 'Stalking the Wild Asparagus' by Euell Gibbons, 1962, David McKay Company. Inc., New York, NY.
For Southern Nevada Gardening Information and Help: Contact the Master Gardener Helpdesk via telephone. Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. except holidays at 702-257-5556 or by email at (firstname.lastname@example.org). Walk-ins welcomed.
By Don Deever, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Extension Educator, Lincoln County aka ‘The Weed Whisperer’