Purslane weed, sometimes called pusley, is known botanically as Portulaca oleracea. It is a prolific weed that may have originated in India but is now widely distributed worldwide. It creeps along the ground, with many plump stems emanating from a single root and bearing medium green, succulent leaves. The small yellow flowers are no more than 3/8 inch across. It is part of the Portulacaceae family, which also contains its more civilized relative, rose moss (Portulaca grandiflora).
Portulaca oleracea was first described by 18th century taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus. However, it had been used for many purposes long before Linnaeus' time. Though modern gardeners regard it as an invasive weed, purslane has been grown deliberately--past and present--for its culinary and medicinal qualities. In earlier times it was also reputedly used as a charm against evil spirits and strewn around sleeping areas to protect the innocent.
Purslane is a versatile plant and can tolerate almost any kind of soil and thrives under low water conditions. It can spring up from the cracks between pavers or in garden beds. Each plant can produce over 52,000 seeds, and those seeds can remain viable for decades. Seeds germinate best in very warm soil and, once germinated, purslane sprouts stems that radiate outward from a central root, forming a dense mat that can become large. The plants generally emerge in late spring or early summer when soil temperatures reach 90 degrees or more.
Purslane is a popular staple in many cuisines, including those of Mexico, Russia, the Mediterranean and Central and South America. It is eaten fresh in salads and sandwiches, or cooked in stews, stir-fries, soups and omelets. Its taste is like that of spinach or watercress and it can be substituted for those vegetables. Nutritionally, the plant is high in beta carotene and alpha linolenic acid, which is a beneficial omega-3 fatty acid.
Purslane and medicines made from its parts were used internally and externally. Applied externally, the juice was purported to reduce inflammation, including inflammation of the mouth and gums, and to help sores heal. Taken internally, it was thought to be beneficial for urinary complaints, as well as for reducing dry coughs, slaking thirst and easing shortness of breath.
Purslane, with its ability to self-seed prolifically, is hard to eradicate. It is important to destroy plants before they flower and set seed. Avoid tilling soil where purslane roots or seeds may be lurking, as bringing the seeds close to the top of the soil aids germination and breaking roots promotes generation of new plants. Mulching, which cools the soil and blocks plant growth, can help keep purslane under control.