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Purslane, Weed It or Eat It

By Sandy Wood 2014 

Common purslane, Portulaca oleracea, is a weedy plant in the purslane family (Portulacaceae) with a wide distribution. Likely native to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, it had reached North America by pre-Columbian times and was in Europe by the late 16th century. It has been grown for more than 4,000 years as a food and medicinal plant and is still cultivated in many places today. 

It is considered quite nutritious because it is unusually high in omega-3 fatty acids and contains significant amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium and antioxidants. It also contains high amounts of oxalates so should not be consumed excessively by those susceptible to forming kidney stones. It is sometimes used as fodder and is fed to poultry to reduce egg cholesterol and was also used traditionally as an ointment for burns. Some other common names include garden purslane, little hogweed, pusley, and wild portulaca. It’s called pourpierin France and verdolagain Mexico.

Common purslane, a summer annual broadleaf succulent plant, grows rapidly in spring and summer and is an important agricultural weed. It is found throughout California to about 4600 feet. Plants prefer loose, nutrient-rich, sandy soil. Many regional biotypes are recognized as varieties or subspecies. Common purslane's distinctive succulent foliage is unlikely to be confused with other weed species. The purslane sawfly, Schizocerella pilicornis, and a leafminer weevil, Hypurus bertrandiperris, are two accidentally introduced biological control agents that have become widespread in California. Where the purslane sawfly has been established, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has rated it as providing excellent control of common purslane populations.

The mature plant grows prostrate to spreading, up to 3-1/3 ft (1 m) in length, and has many succulent branches, starting from the base. Leaves are egg to spatula-shaped, succulent, stalkless or have very short stalks, about 1/5 inches to 1-1/5 inches (5–30 mm) long, and sometimes their edges are red-tinged. Leaves are arranged either opposite one another or alternate along the stem.

Flowering takes place from May through September. Single flowers or clusters of two to five, are found at stem tips. The flowers are small, yellow, usually have five petals, and typically open only on hot, sunny days from midmorning to early afternoon. Plants reproduce by seeds.

Learn more interesting and scientific discussions on health benefits and herbal usage from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The stems, leaves, and flower buds have a slightly tart or sour and salty taste. The intensity of flavor is influenced by the physiology of the plant. In hot, dry conditions purslane switches to photosynthesis using Crassulacean acid metabolism (C4) as a means of conserving moisture. In this system, the leaves trap carbon dioxide at night (instead of during the day as with normal photosynthetic process, when open stomata would allow valuable water to escape through transpiration) and convert this to malic acid. Then the malic acid, which has a sour flavor, is converted to glucose for storage during the day. So leaves picked early in the day when malic acid concentrations are highest will have the tartest flavor. There are several named cultivars that are grown as crops, but few are available in the US.

For those of you that are interested in trying a recipe, there are many to choose –from Mexican to Turkish. Try Google and pick one that may appeal to you or you can do what I do and just toss a few leaves in a salad and enjoy.

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