Purslane: the volunteer vegetable

I’ve been allowing a small volunteer plant to grow in my desert garden out of curiosity; I couldn’t identify it as a tiny seedling, then it became clear it was a succulent of some sort.  Now, a week later, it’s powering ahead, and I’ve got Edible Purslane. 

Portulaca oleraceae, Edible Purslane

Portulaca oleraceae, Edible Purslane

It was the Edible bit that made the light go on in my head.  I did a bit of research (how did we function before the internet?), and discovered that it’s a little gem. This stuff is amazing. Once I realised I knew what it was, I remembered that I used to nibble it as a child for the sappy, tangy taste (very good when you’re thirsty and far from the next drink), but I didn’t know its virtues and properties then.  Now, they’ve discovered some incredible things about it.

Purslane contains more omega 3 fatty acids than any other vegetable source.  Also antioxidants and a wide range of important vitamins and minerals. It’s an anti-mutagenic, which means it protects against cancer, too.  It’s commonly grown and eaten in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America, and makes a delicious addition to salads. It can be cooked and eaten as a green vegetable or pickled for a winter hit of nutrition. Just Google it, and you’ll find a load of info, including recipes. It’s also used in traditional Chinese medicine.

You get the most distinctive taste when you pick it first thing in the morning; something to do with how it photosynthesises. The process involves malic acid (what makes apples tart) during the night time phase, so early in the morning the concentrations are highest and the acidic flavour is strongest. It works well with tomato and cucumber in salad, and as a foil to mild and creamy foods such as potato salad or yoghurt dressing. It can be eaten raw or steamed, integrated into stews or used to garnish.

You do have to be a little careful about identification, as it closely resembles another plant, Creeping Spurge, which is slightly toxic.  Purslane has smooth leaves and stems, and clear sap. Spurge has hairy stems and milky sap.  DO NOT confuse them.  Purslane will grow pretty much anywhere, and I marvel at how much nutrition is being conscientiously weeded out of flower beds, nuked with weedkiller when it appears in paving cracks, and dismissed as a ‘weed’ by those in charge of producing our food. It’s the only one of the Portulaca family that’s truly edible, so don’t try with the specially bred ones with big, bright flowers (P. Grandflora, P. Umbraticola). They won’t kill you, but they won’t make you stronger either.

It also makes an excellent ground cover, is brilliant at drawing up nutrients from deep in the soil, creates a low level humid microclimate, and as a bonus, has pretty yellow flowers.  What’s not to like?  Is it taking over?  EAT some of it.  It will, however, self seed liberally, so keeping it under control will depend on removing seed pods when they appear.

I’m going to wait a little longer till the valiant volunteer is larger before I start stripping it for dinner’s side order.  But given its performance so far, I’m not too worried!


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