My wife and I were walking down the road to a friend’s house in Little Paint one day when I spotted a familiar plant growing at the base of a mailbox post. I stooped over and picked a cluster of small leaves from one of the plant’s smooth, reddish, succulent stems and exclaimed to my wife, “Look at this!”
She regarded me and the plant quizzically and said, “What’s so special about it? Looks like a weed to me.” I proceeded to clean the leaves gently on my shirt and (to her horror) pop them in my mouth. Their distinctive, tangy taste was like a ‘blast from the past’.
In the eastern Mediterranean region of the world where I grew up, the Arabic word for this plant is baq-leh. Its Latin (scientific) name is Portulaca oleracea (related to the colorful, annual bedding plant), and here in the U.S. it is commonly known as purslane.
Although most Americans look at purslane as an invasive weed, I am willing to bet that older generations of Eastern Kentuckians knew well about its medicinal and nutritional value and probably stir-fried it or cooked it much as they would any leafy green vegetable.
Indeed, all the above-ground parts of this plant, i.e. the little yellow flowers, the small, round, black seeds, the stems, and the leaves, are edible and very healthy. You can eat them raw or cooked. People in Mediterranean countries put the leaves and seeds in fresh salads, or add them to soups and stews. The Turks use them in baked pastries. Australian Aborigines use the seeds in traditional seed cakes, and the Greeks fry the leaves and stems with feta cheese, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. Hmm, hmm. Sounds delicious!
Purslane is rich in vitamins, carotenoids and minerals and has more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. As for its medicinal value, it has been used for hundreds of years to treat conditions like oral lichen planus (inflammation of mucus membranes in the mouth), insect bites, snake bites, bee stings, boils and other sores on the skin, and maladies of the digestive system, including intestinal infections. It was such an important plant in ancient Rome that the naturalist-philosopher, Pliny-the-Elder, advised everyone to always wear a cluster of purslane to ward off evil.
Extensive research has been done on purslane’s anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-fungal properties that have been effective in treating the above conditions. Some studies have shown the plant’s potential for increasing cognition, and investigations of its flowers have revealed powerful antioxidants and anti-mutagenic qualities.
Purslane’s growing season is from the beginning of summer to the start of fall. It rarely grows very high, acting more like a ground cover. You might see it ambling its way around plants on the surface of your nicely cultivated vegetable garden, but think twice about pulling it all out, especially if the garden is in soil that dries out quickly and becomes compacted. In this situation, purslane acts as a ‘companion’ plant and brings moisture to the surface by way of its taproot and stabilizes the ground moisture surrounding the other plants, thus helping them survive.
Corn planted in dry soil benefits particularly well from the presence of purslane. Its roots cannot penetrate the hard surface on their own, so they ‘huddle’ against purslane taproots in order to reach the moisture and nutrients they need to thrive.
In times of severe drought, purslane is clearly a handy plant to have in any garden!
If you plan to add purslane to your summer diet (and I suggest that you do!), harvest it in the early morning, when the leaves are moist and have the best flavor. As a summer day progresses, they lose their tanginess. You might even want to designate a spot to cultivate it just for eating, and let the ‘wild’ version of the plant do its beneficial work in the other gardens.
For more about purslane, go to Plants for a Future: www.pfaf.org/user/plant.aspx?LatinName=Portulaca+oleracea
Professor Shiber teaches Biology and Human Ecology at the Prestonsburg Campus of the BSCTC and has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Botany, Plant Morphology, and Plant Structure at Purdue University.