Focus On: Purslane
Amidst the highways, road signs, gardens, and orchards lies a plant that seems to thrive no matter the condition. Most would mistake it as a weed that never seems to give up, but the trained eye can see this little plant for what it really is: a superfood.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is also known as pigweed, little hogweed, pusley, and moss rose, showing just how much time is spent calling it a weed. There is some truth to the name, however, as purslane is an extremely durable plant with weedlike tendencies. It can thrive in any condition, from dry and desert-like to well-irrigated areas with nutrient rich soil. While purslane is native to the Indian subcontinent, evidence shows that this sneaky plant had reached North America by the pre-Columbian era.
This summer annual is a broadleaf that grows rapidly during the spring and summer months, blossoming a yellow flower between May and September. The stems are smooth and red, while the leaves are as crisp as cucumbers. Purslane usually has a slightly sour and salty taste, making it a great plant to pickle.
The beauty of purslane is that it helps stabilize ground moisture. The deep roots bring up the moisture and nutrients that other plants could not retrieve on their own. And when purslane is found near certain crop fields, such as corn, the roots of the corn will actually follow the purslane’s roots down through the harder soil that otherwise would be impenetrable.
Eating the Unwanted
Throughout Europe, Mexico, Asia, and the Middle East, purslane is eaten in almost every way imaginable. The stem, leaves, and buds are all edible, showing with the versatility of the plant. Australian aborigines used the seeds from the purslane to make seedcakes (bread dough that had the seeds crushed into it). The Greeks, who call it andrakla, fry the leaves and stems with feta, tomato, olive oil, and other ingredients for a delightful salad. People from Turkey cook purslane like spinach (Popeye would approve), and in the south of Portugal, purslane is used as a soup ingredient.
There is a reason purslane has been labeled a superfood, and it isn’t because of its taste or what you can do with it. Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acid than any other vegetable, giving this weed the title of the most nutritious green plant on Earth. It has an extraordinary amount of fatty acids for a land-based vegetable, about the same as fish. This gives vegetarians something to rejoice over.
Being low in calories, purslane tends to be an excellent choice for any salad, soup, stew, or stir fry you choose to make. Another great use for purslane—according to Martha Washington, the original first lady—is pickled “pursland,” as written in her family cookbook.
“Gather ye pursland when it [is] stalkie & will snap when you break it. Boyle it in a kettle of fayre water without any salt & when it is tender, make a pickle of salt & water as you doe for other pickles & when it is cold, make it pretty sharp with vinegar & cover it as you did ye other prementioned pickles,” reads the recipe.
Select and Store
Purslane is a green leafy plant that is best tasting when picked in the wild and replanted in a personal garden. If that is not an option, organic purslane will tend to have the same great taste and texture as wild purslane. Traditional store-bought purslane is more likely to lose the full flavor.
It’s also important to look carefully for mold when searching for the perfect purslane. Yellow or dark spots will indicate mold, which will affect the taste. Purslane cooks down quite a bit, so take more than the recipe or dish calls for.
Once purslane has been picked or purchased, make sure to wash the leaves and stem in clean, cold, running water to help remove soil, insecticide, or fungicide residues. Once thoroughly cleaned, remove all moisture by patting dry with towel or cloth. Store in the refrigerator and use within three or four days.
The wonder of purslane doesn’t end with the plant being infused with omega-3, although that nutrient alone may reduce coronary heart disease, stroke, and aid in the prevention of ADHD and autism. It also contains vitamin A (a natural antioxidant essential for vision) as well as two types of betalain alkaloid pigments that are potent antioxidants. Additionally, purslane is rich in dietary fiber and contains ample amounts of magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, and vitamin C.
Weed or not, purslane has shown to be effective as medicine as well. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), it’s known as Ma Chi Xian, meaning “horse tooth amaranth.” Don’t let the name fool you: it’s not a horse remedy. Purslane has been known to be a clinically effective treatment for oral lichen planus, otherwise known as inflammation autoimmune disease, which causes an itchy rash on the skin in the mouth. TCM says that it also helps with bleeding, sores, fire toxicity, wasp stings, and snakebites. The leaves of the plant help soothe and treat insect bites, boils, bacillary dysentery, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and intestinal bleeding.
Knowing what you know now, maybe the weeds found in the garden, or coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t so bad. You never know what powerful nutrients they may contain.
Did you know?
When purslane is stressed by low availability of water, it switches to photosynthesis using Crassulacean acid metabolism. At night its leaves trap carbon dioxide and convert it to malic acid. During the day, the malic acid is converted into glucose. So if purslane is harvested in the morning, instead of in the evening, the leaves will have 10 times more malic acid content, giving it a tangy flavor.