I am never first in line to go foraging for edible weeds. I’d rather eat tastier cultivated crops, but then there is purslane (Portulaca oleracea, not to be confused with the other salad leaf known as purslane, Claytonia perfoliata), which straddles the line between weed and vegetable. The semi-succulent leaves have a crunchy tang when used raw as a lettuce alternative, or you can chop them into yogurt sauces or add them to stir fries. Purslane smoothies or elegant stems of purslane tempura are not out of the question.
Sometimes called duckweed or little hogweed, purslane is the one weed I actually like to eat. In addition to its sprightly flavor, purslane is loaded with nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids, which are rarely found in plants, and a long list of vitamins and minerals. The leaves and stems do contain oxalic acid at levels slightly above those of spinach, which may limit consumption for sensitive individuals. Then again, you are not likely to eat much purslane at a sitting.
A Taste of Purslane History
It is possible that the purslane in my garden (and yours) is descended from plants grown in Native American gardens, because somehow the seeds made it from Asia to North America several hundred years before ocean crossings entered recorded history. According to local historians, the Tutelo tribe that lived in my area let purslane grow in their corn and used it as a green vegetable. In Mexico and the American Southwest, purslane is called verdolagas, where it is much loved as a base for pork or potato stews.
One of the ways purslane has entered gardens and kitchens around the world is by producing huge amounts of seeds. A robust plant can shed more than 200,000 seeds, assuring the success of the next generation. In hungrier times, the mature plants were pulled and left to dry on screens until the tiny black seeds dropped through and were collected for grinding into flour. The dried leaves were saved for use as winter potherbs. In China, purslane (Ma Chi Xian) is both food and medicine, and is used like an antibiotic for heat-producing infections. Check out the wonderful animated rendition of purslane’s place in Chinese folklore here.
Purslane in the Garden
If you have seen purslane in your garden once, you will see it again, because purslane seeds can remain viable for decades. The seeds germinate in response to warm temperatures and bright light, with seedlings appearing from early summer to early fall. Plants are killed by freezing temperatures, but can persist year round in tropical climates.
To grow purslane, simply skip over a few seedlings when weeding beans, corn, or other upright crops. I also tend to retain plants that pop up near walls, steps or terraces because they make a lovely cascading ground cover. Purslane has been used successfully as a living mulch between rows of spring broccoli, with the plants terminated in summer before they made seeds. I like to keep an eye on them rather than risk excessive purslane deposits in my garden’s weed seed bank, so I choose six or so plants for harvesting, and pull the rest during routine weeding.
A safer strategy is to transplant seedlings found in the garden to a container, and grow the plants as a drought-tolerant herb on a sunny deck or patio. You can do the same with cuttings purchased at the farmers market, because purslane willingly roots at lower leaf nodes.
When young stems are harvested by the handful, new ones regrow in about three weeks. Always harvest purslane in the morning, because energy gathered during the day as tart-tasting malic acid is converted to sugar during the night.
Purslane in the Kitchen
Refrigerate purslane immediately after harvesting to keep it crisp. Use raw purslane as a lettuce substitute by slipping whole leaves and stem tips onto sandwiches, or use them to garnish soups. Coarsely chop fresh purslane before adding it to Greek salads with tomato, olives and feta. The refreshing Bulgarian or Turkish cold yogurt soup called tarator can be made with chopped purslane with or without cucumbers, or you might try a pesto made with purslane, basil and walnuts.
Cooking purslane brings out a bit of slime, which you won’t mind if you add butter, salt and pepper, or simply chop a small amount into soup. Also try pickled purslane, made by covering a jar full of stems and greens with equal parts water and vinegar, with a teaspoon of salt for seasoning. Kept refrigerated, the pickled purslane is ready to eat in two days.