Variously considered a pernicious weed or "powerhouse green," purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a low-growing plant that thrives both in roadside oblivion or cultivated gardens. While European countries cultivate it as a salad crop, and many Indian cultures rely on it as a cooked vegetable, most Americans don't even know that the lowly purslane is not only edible, but highly nutritious.
A low-growing annual succulent about 6 inches high and wide, common purslane has prostrate branches that sprawl in all directions. Some cultivated types have a more upright growing habit and ornamental features, including golden leaves. Purslane features small, rounded leaves that have the characteristic fleshy texture of many succulents. It has red stems and bears yellow flowers in summer.
Purdue University, which lists purslane as a now-neglected horticultural crop that deserves more attention, believes that the herb has been cultivated globally for more than four thousand years. Certainly 2,000 years ago the Greek physician and scholar Dioscorides prescribed it for headaches, eye irritation and even as an anti-aphrodisiac to quench inappropriate ardor.
Purslane contains alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid similar to that found in fish oil, according to the University of Connecticut. Purslane also contains vitamins A, C and E, as well as natural mineral salts.
A natural antioxidant, purslane has the potential for becoming better-known to U.S. consumers as its other healing properties are discovered. "Purslane is being used in several parts of the world in the treatment of burns and trauma; headaches; stomach, intestinal and liver ailments; cough; shortness of breath and arthritis," notes the University of Connecticut. "This plant has been employed as a purgative, cardiac tonic, emollient, muscle relaxant, and in anthelmintic, anti-inflammatory and diuretic treatments." The University of Connecticut studies found cultivated, upright varieties of purslane to be richer in alpha-linolenic acid than the wild varieties.
Pick purslane whole, or snip stems and leaves, for use in green salads or sandwiches. "An excellent crunchy salad plant, its cooling leaves blend well with hotter flavored salad herbs," notes herbalist Lesley Bremness. Purslane also makes a nutritious boiled or sauteed green and can be added to omelets or quiches in place of broccoli or spinach.
In France, purslane pairs with sorrel in the classic dish known as soupe bonne femme. Simmer three sliced potatoes for 20 minutes in 6 cups water or vegetable stock. Add 3 cups sorrel, 3 cups purslane, and season to taste with salt, pepper and dried dill, thyme and sage. Add a dollop of sour cream and garnish with fresh chopped purslane and chives, if desired.
Or try a "Charles II salad," developed for the seventeenth century English king. Toss chopped purslane with borage flowers, marigold petals, chervil and lettuce, and lightly dress the salad with lemon juice and vegetable oil.
If you have purslane growing wild in your yard, rethink destroying the nutritious "weed" (or at least, eat it after pulling it up). Otherwise, establish cultivated purslane seedlings about 6 inches apart in herb gardens or scattered throughout rock gardens. It makes a handsome, deceptively delicate looking plant to grow between bricks or stepping stones. Keep it well watered for its first few weeks of growth, and start new seedlings every few weeks.
The University of Connecticut suggests using purslane as a living mulch in broccoli or bush bean gardens. Prostrate forms provide effective weed control and hold moisture in the soil for the other crops while also providing additional edible value.