You’ve probably seen it in your garden when the weather has been so dry that nothing else will grow. You might even plant one of its cousins in your flower garden.
The plant in question is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). The name oleracea means vegetable or herblike. Purslane is a fleshy prostrate growing weed that can give you sustenance when the rest of your garden forsakes you. There are no poisonous species that closely resemble it either.
The thick soft stems are round, smooth and give rise to small oblong thick green leaves. These leaves are nearly but not quite opposite each other on the stems. There is also no petiole, which normally connects the leaf blade to the main stem (sessile leaves). When flowers form they are yellow and also edible.
It thrives under drought conditions in full sun, which is why it can be a problem for gardeners. It is also why it has value.
Purslane in its young state is great mixed with other greens in a salad with a vinegar based dressing. I think when raw it is better mixed. The leaves and stems contain sticky mucilage that might be too pronounced alone. When eaten with lettuce or spinach it is an asset, giving the salad extra body.
When consumed as a potherb it doesn’t cook down as much as other greens. Purslane is mild tasting but filling. Try stir-frying it with other vegetables like onions and peppers.
Probably its greatest culinary asset is its ability to add body to a soup. It’s a great thickener, much like okra, and has far fewer calories than starch.
On the nutrition side, purslane contains linolenic acid, one of the essential omega-3 fatty acids. These are commonly found in fish and nuts.
Research indicates consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some studies link these chemicals to preventing the development of ADHD and autism in children.
Purslane is also high in vitamins A, C and some of the B vitamins. It is also rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese. Betacyanins and betaxanthins, both potent antioxidants, are also present as is a healthy amount of fiber.
If you collect it from your garden you have a pretty good idea what contaminants might be in it, so that’s not a problem. However, if you gather some from the roadside you can’t be sure what chemicals might be there. Some pesticides persist for long periods.
It’s interesting how some obscure plants which we call weeds can be very beneficial when we give them a chance. I’m not advocating we all turn into subsistence gatherers and abandon traditional crops. I only suggest we take advantage of the many wonders around us.
Learning new things about our surroundings can be fun and rewarding. As with anything new though, always consume small amounts until you are sure your system agrees with it. Some have aversions to traditional foods as well. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. Be a lifelong learner.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School. (firstname.lastname@example.org)