An annual plant found wild and cultivated in many areas of the world, this low-growing succulent green is eaten fresh or cooked wherever it is found. In the United States, it grows in vacant lots, fields, and gardens, where it is often considered an invasive weed. Yet this common plant is uncommonly nutritious.
Writing about his voyage to the South Seas, Englishman and adventurer Sir Richard Hawkins (1562–1622) observed that his crew, suffering from scurvy, was saved by eating “the hearbe purslane,” which they found in abundance on an island they visited. Purslane is a very rich source of vitamin C, a deficiency of which is the cause of that terrible disease.
Common Names: Pigweed, Purslane
Description: Trailing, 6- to 8-inch-tall plant with clusters of flat, succulent, dark green leaves; smooth stems often have a reddish hue when mature; small, yellow flowers
Flowering: Early summer to fall
Parts Used: Leaves and stems
Range/Habitat: Native to Eurasia, widely naturalized throughout the world
The tender young leaves of purslane can be pinched off of the young stems from summer to fall and added fresh to salads or cooked in the same way as spinach. Eaten raw, purslane has a tart, lemony flavor with peppery undertones. One Pennsylvania German folk recipe combines chopped fresh purslane, egg, bread crumbs, currants, and seasonings. The mixture is formed into small cakes that are sautéed until light brown; the cakes make a very tasty and nutritious substitute for sausage. The stems can be pickled like cucumbers or blanched and frozen for use in winter.
Purslane is an important plant in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is cultivated throughout China. The young leaves are ground and used as a wash for treating skin problems, such as sores. It is a cooling plant thought to relieve “fire toxicity” and is taken internally for urinary problems, as well as for dysentery. Human clinical trials have shown both purslane juice and tablets to be effective against intestinal parasites such as hookworm. The herb is also used topically to treat swellings and stings.
A nutritional powerhouse, purslane is high in omega-3 fatty acids, containing more than any other leafy vegetable, as well as vitamins A, B, C, and carotenoids. For those who don’t eat enough omega-3 fatty acid–rich fish, purslane should be the herb of choice to maintain optimum health and prevent disease. The leaves also contain a great deal of oxalates, however, so people with a history of oxalate-based kidney stones should avoid eating too much of this plant.
How to grow it
Purslane can often be found growing in garden beds or between paving stones. If you don’t find it there, it’s easy to grow in full sun and sandy, well-drained soil. Sow the seed on the surface of the soil after danger of frost has passed. Harvest young leaves and stems and use them fresh; remove flowers to prevent unwanted seedlings.