This week’s plant for Wild Edible Wednesday is Portulaca oleracea, or Common Purslane. Like Chickweed or Plantain, Purslane is one of those wild edibles that it doesn’t matter where you are or what continent you’re on, there’s probably some nearby. Purslane is one of the most widespread and hardiest plants on the planet. It’s also considered a pernicious weed that’s nearly impossible to control, but I’d say if you can’t beat it, eat it.
A herbaceous annual succulent, the purslanes have their own family – Portulacacae. Widespread throughout the world, purslanes are generally fleshy-leaved succulents that inhabit dry and semiarid climates. Common purslane, however, shows up just about everywhere. It’s so widespread that no one knows for sure exactly where it originated. It most likely came from the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern regions, but it’s been growing on all seven continents since time immemorial. Yes, seven. It grows in Antarctica. All it needs are two full weeks of light and warmth to complete its life cycle. It even greeted the European colonists in North America, which leads many to speculate just how it got there. It first appears in the archeological record between 1100 and 1300, so there’s a plausible theory that the Vikings brought it here to their short-lived settlement at L’anse aux Meadows. Native Americans took to it readily, and it spread across the continent like wildfire.
Purslane behaves like a groundcover, creeping along the earth and rarely getting more than 6” tall. It has smooth, reddish stems tipped with tiny, ovate, red-veined leaves no more than 1” long. Leaves are leathery to the touch and have a waxy appearance. They may be either alternating or opposed. Flowers are yellow with five petals, and no more than a quarter inch wide. Seeds follow a few days to a few weeks later in a tiny pod that opens up and broadcasts the near-microscopic seeds everywhere. Purslane is a distinctive plant and is easily recognizable once you learn it, and it has no deadly mimics.
Purslane’s best use is as an edible. It has a tangy, grassy flavor not unlike watercress, but not quite as tart as wood sorrel. It’s popular in Mediterranean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern cuisine, and is used there in soups, salads, pesto, or by itself, either pickled or as a cooked green. Some people are wild about it, others not so much. You’ll just have to try it yourself and pass judgment. What can definitely be said about it, however, it it’s among the most nutritious greens you can eat. In fact, there’s a strong argument for calling purslane a superfood. Purslane has the single highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids outside of oily fish or flaxseed, it’s high in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamins A, B, and C, and two types of antioxidants known to prevent cell mutation. It’s an extremely nutrient-dense cancer fighter and general health booster.
Medicinally, purslane has a wide variety of uses, some fairly run-of-the-mill, others downright unusual. It’s another great wild edible to add to your medicinal arsenal if you have a cold, fever, cough, or flu. It works as a febrifuge to reduce your fever, and its high vitamin C content will help boost your immune system. It also has antiseptic qualities, which can help fight internal infections. It’s not a bad idea to drink a maintenance dose of purslane tea regularly just to help keep your immune system strong. Purslane also has some less well known medicinal qualities as well. It’s an insulin booster, and is great for diabetics and hypoglycemics to help them stabilize their blood sugar levels. Don’t take my word for it, check out these studies by the National Institutes of Health that back this claim up: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2672007/
Had too much caffeine and got the jitters? Eat some purslane. It’s got high concentrations of magnesium and melatonin that’ll help bring you back down to earth. And traditionally, folks swore by a wad of purslane under the tongue to reduce thirst. Now, there’s obviously no substitute for actually getting hydrated, but doing this will help make your situation more bearable until you can find yourself some water. Purslane has also been used as a weight-loss aid for ages – folks were recommended to cut out most of the other foods in their diet and basically go on a purslane fast. I don’t think there’s anything particularly magical about it in this regard, it’s a high-fiber, low-calorie leafy green with a lot of water in it, and combined with not eating all the crap you were before, it’d be pretty well impossible not to lose weight.
Purslane is the very definition of hard to kill. It’s one of those plants that’ll survive the nuclear apocalypse. Tiny pieces of stems can rapidly grow roots and turn into new plants, so weedeating and rototilling only serve to spread it. One plant can produce 240,000 seeds, which can last as long as 40 years in the soil, lying dormant until brought to the surface. It can survive the Antarctic cold and the African heat, and seems perfectly happy growing in cracks in the road, like the one pictured above. The USDA is concerned enough that it’s classified purslane as a noxious weed, and plants can no longer be legally sold for growing. Once you have it on your property, you’ve got it forever. There’s no getting rid of it, and the harder you try, the more it spreads. It’s fire-resistant, pretty indifferent to most herbicides, and pulling it only breaks the roots into fragments that turn into more plants. So the moral of the story is… if you can’t beat it, eat it!
Want to learn more about purslane and a whole host of other wild edible and medicinal plants? Come get out in the field and get your hands dirty, and join us for Wild Edible Essentials on Saturday, May 4th from 9am-7pm! Register now at https://www.sarcraft.com/course-registration/wild-edible-essentials!