Weeding out goodness
Purslane is a succulent, tasty and versatile plant found around the world
By Christopher Nyerges 07/29/2010
Henry David Thoreau was fond of eating purslane and consumed it frequently during his Walden Pond experiment. “I learned that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane, which I gathered and boiled,” he wrote. “Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not from want of necessities, but for want of luxuries.”
Purslane is probably one of the most versatile and well-liked weeds commonly available. The plant can be eaten raw or lightly cooked, pickled or fried. It can also be used in soups and stews, and the seeds can be ground into flour. Though not available at the produce section of supermarkets, purslane often appears at farmers markets.
In salads, use all of the plant except the root. Wash purslane carefully to remove any dirt and sand adhering to its low-growing leaves. Chop the leaves and stems. The leaves are mild tasting and slightly slimy, but the thick, succulent stems are juicy and crunchy. A salad of purslane with seasoning and chopped onions is very acceptable fare. And the stems are great for quenching your thirst while hiking along a dusty trail.
On its own, the plant should be lightly cooked in small amounts of water, seasoned and eaten. It can also be fried, either alone or with onions and eggs.
Purslane is not only versatile and good tasting; it’s good for you. Dried purslane has been found to contain 30 percent albuminoids (protein) and 35 percent carbohydrates. One hundred grams of purslane contains 21 calories and 2,500 international units (IU) of vitamin A when cooked; .10 mg of riboflavin and .06 mg cooked; 103 mg of calcium raw and 86 mg cooked; 25 mg of vitamin C raw and 12 mg cooked; and small amounts of phosphorus, niacin and thiamine.
In 1986, purslane was identified as being the richest leafy-plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of heart attack. This discovery was made by Norman Salem Jr., a lipid biochemist with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md.
Interestingly, rather than suggest people begin including purslane in their diets, Salem and his collaborator, Artemis P. Simopoulos of the American Association for World Health in Washington, DC, studied range-fed chickens that fed on wild purslane at a Greek farm. The yolk from one large-sized egg from purslane-fed chickens contained about 300 mg of omega-3 fatty acids — the same amount contained in a standard fish oil capsule and 10 times more than what is found in a typical supermarket egg. Salem and Simopoulos’ findings about the eggs were published in the Nov. 16, 1989, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Purslane is a low-growing fleshy herb, whose outstretched stems measure 3 to 12 inches. The stems, which are very succulent, are round and tinted red. The paddle-shaped leaves are also quite succulent. Believed to have originated in India, purslane was first introduced to North America from tropical America before colonial times. In Southern California, purslane is not an early spring weed. Rather, we find it sprouting in the early summer, and it seems to prefer rose beds, fields and even hard-packed soils.
If you’re still not sure what purslane looks like, go to any nursery. Where herbicides are sold there is usually a chart with photos of all the “noxious weeds” that must be eradicated. Invariably, the wonderful purslane plant is found on such charts. Why? Because it sometimes grows in rose beds. As cartoonist Walter Kelly’s Pogo reminds us, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Testing Your Outdoor Survival Skills.” He has been leading wild food outings since 1974. A schedule of his classes is available from the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041, or online at christophernyerges.com.