As friends and neighbors complain about the rampant weeds in their gardens and fields, I feel a touch of schadenfreude. All those wild green things make my heart sing and my mouth salivate.
They apparently did the same for Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: “I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane which I gathered and boiled. Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not from want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries.”
He’s right, of course. We need not starve nor want, especially in the height of summer when purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is thriving all around us.
Yet when my brother Henry first started harvesting, bunching and selling purslane at the Evanston (Ill.) Farmers Market 18 years ago, the only customers who snapped it up were Middle Eastern, Mexican, Indian and Greek. As they did, others would do a double take and exclaim, “Isn’t that a weed?”
Well, yes. And no.
It’s strange how something so nutritious and delicious, a staple of so many cuisines, could come to be known as a weed. Purslane originated in India and is reputed to have been Gandhi’s favorite food. Now it is “cosmopolitan,” meaning it grows all around the world, most likely in your lawn or garden.
Part of the reason for its evolutionary success is that a single plant can produce more than 52,000 seeds, and those seeds can survive for up to 30 years. To weed-phobes, this is a nightmare. But to those who know nature’s bounty, it is a great gift, guaranteeing us nutritious, free food no matter what happens to global industrial agriculture after peak oil.
Purslane is easy to identify by its succulent, rounded, wedge-shaped leaves that form clusters along the stem. The stem is round and smooth, and it trails near the ground like a small vine. Young plants tend to have green stems, which turn red as they mature. Even a cursory glance at purslane’s succulent leaves and ground-hugging habits make it clear it is related to the moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), an old favorite for summer gardens in hot, dry places.
Nutritious part of an edible landscape
And if moss roses can be part of a gardenscape, why not purslane? Given its taste, nutrition and beauty, it makes a lot of sense to take it off the “weed” list and embrace it as part of your edible landscaping.
Purslane is common, but uncommonly good for you. It tops the list of plants high in vitamin E and an essential omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of “The Omega Diet” says purslane is the richest known plant source of ALA. It also has more vitamin E than spinach, more beta carotene than carrots, and is rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus.
Why pay money for fish (often unsustainably farmed or questionably caught) when you can grow your own omega-3s? Especially when it takes little effort to grow purslane, since it does grow, well, like a weed.
Picking and eating purslane
To preserve purslane’s crispness and juiciness, pick it in the morning or evening. The entire purslane plant — leaves, stems and small yellow flowers — is edible. It is wonderful raw in salads or on a sandwich (in place of lettuce or pickles) or sautéed as a side dish. In addition to the crispy texture you would expect from a succulent, purslane has a slightly lemony flavor with a hint of pepper that makes it perfect for pickling.
The food and garden historian Clarissa Dillon pickles whole purslane plants in equal parts vinegar and stale beer after giving them a quick blanch in boiling water. In a recent New York Times article on Ye Olde Kitchen Garden, Dillon cites her copy of the 1750 edition of “The Compleat Housewife: Or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion” as the source of this recipe.
Chef Steve Johnson has a recipe for purslane-cucumber-yogurt salad, similar to those our Greek and Turkish market customers enjoy. But I’ve come to really love purslane the way our Mexican friends enjoy it: with eggs.
Purslane and Eggs (Verdolago con Huevos)
- Put the diced onion and purslane in a heated and buttered skillet.
- Cook for about five minutes.
- Add the eggs and cook omelet-style.
- Serve with tomato slices on the side.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Photo: Purslane. Credit: Terra Brockman.