Gardeners consider purslane, like dandelion greens and chickweed, either the hero or the villain of the landscape. Often considered a persistent weed by American homeowners, in other parts of the world purslane is eaten as a nutritious herb or salad green--or even as a spinach-like cooking vegetable. The low-growing plant, which has creeping red stems and succulent stems and leaves, develops a mat-like growing habit after just a year or two.
Con: Determined Weed
Although technically an annual plant, purslane persists in most gardens because of its ability to set as many as 240,000 seeds per plant, often leaving those seeds behind when gardeners pull up the parent plant. These seeds are capable of germinating as long as 40 years later, notes the University of California's Integrated Pest Management program. To make matters worse, purslane's growing habit during the growing season is a vigorously spreading one. "A few scattered plants in the first year can become an almost solid carpet of purslane the following year," the program's website says. Left unchecked, purslane invades lawns and gardens, crowding out more desirable plants.
Con: Known Associates
While purslane may be nutritious and even lack poisonous look-alikes, it has been known to fraternize with a poisonous plant, according to wild foods expert Steve Brill. "Spurge, which is poisonous, sometimes grows with purslane," Brill warns. "Although the two plants don't closely resemble one another, watch out that you don't carelessly include any spurge in your salad." Spurge has long, string-like stems and oozes a white sap, while purslane has thick, fleshy stems and contains no sap.
Pro: Culinary History
Purslane's botanical name, Portulaca oleracea, gives evidence to its previous veneration as an edible food; "oleracea" means "eaten as a cultivated herb." Native to Persia and India, the plant is believed to have been an edible crop in Europe for 2,000 years, according to Brill. By deliberately growing purslane in the vegetable patch, gardeners can bring a historical and ethnic flair to their own tables.
Purdue University recommends purslane as an alternative crop because of its high amounts of omega-3 fatty oils, similar to that found in fatty fish or fish oil capsules. These healthy fats, much in demand by health-conscious consumers, help control high cholesterol and heart disease. The plant also contains iron, beta carotene, riboflavin, vitamin C and calcium, Brill notes.
Pro: Cooking Versatility
Easy to harvest and to prepare, purslane's tender leaves and stems need only washing and rough chopping before adding to salads. Brill also uses the wild crop to thicken soups and to add nutrition to casseroles. He even recommends pickling the succulent stems for an unusual relish.
Pro: Ground Cover and Living Mulch
Purslane's mat-like growing habit makes it a good alternative to lawns or other ground covers, particularly for the homeowner focused on edible landscaping. A study conducted by the University of Connecticut concluded that the plant also worked effectively at organically controlling weeds in broccoli patches. By broadcasting purslane seeds before transplanting broccoli seedlings, researchers determined that purslane acted as a "living mulch," comparable to chemical weed control and more expensive mulches, such as black plastic.