Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea), also known as green purslane or simply purslane, is a hardy, low-growing annual herb found growing wild throughout the northern hemisphere. Sometimes regarded as an unwanted weed, this plant has long been used for food and medicine. Purslane is closely related to moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), a popular warm-climate ornamental bearing hot pink and orange blossoms.
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Purslane grows close to the ground in a low, spreading, prostrate habit. Its round, juicy, reddish-violet stalks bear clusters of pale green, oval-shaped leaves with rounded ends. These thick, succulent leaves are waxy in texture. During the summer months, small, golden, five-petaled flowers which open at midday emerge, followed by seed cases in autumn. Purslane is annual, regrowing from seed each year in early spring. In ideal conditions, purslane plants attain maximum heights of up to 1.75 feet.
Purslane's propensity toward vigorous growth and ambitious proliferation has given it a reputation as a noxious weed in some areas. It is extremely adept at conserving water, and tolerates a wide range of soil types, temperatures and lighting arrangements.
Purslane seeds are sown directly into the soil in the early spring or fall. Rich, loamy soil and full sun are preferred. Regular waterings encourages abundant growth. Fresh leaves may be harvested at any time of year. They do not dry well, yet stay fresh for a while in the refrigerator.
Culinary and Medicinal Use
Purslane is edible, and may be pickled, eaten raw in salads, steamed or stir-fried. It is a popular vegetable in the Mediterranean region. Purslane is also found in dishes throughout Africa, Australia, India and China. It is crunchy when fresh, with a slight lemony or peppery flavor.
Purslane is extremely nutritious. This humble weed contains significant amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. While some curse the appearance of purslane in their yards and gardens, others are willing to pay a premium for it in high-end restaurants and at farmer's markets.
According to Tom Seymour in his book "Foraging New England," purslane has also been used medicinally in a similar manner to aloe vera. Seymour relates the practice of applying crushed purslane leaves to bites, burns and scratches for relief.
History and Lore
Purslane grows across the globe, from North America to Europe, Africa, Australia and Asia. Its origins are obscure, although it may have been exported throughout the world on trade routes from the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, this plant was believed to guard against evil spirits.
Martha Washington, America's first First Lady, possessed a recipe for pickled purslane in a handwritten cookbook she received as a wedding gift.