J ust like that tiresome houseguest, weeds keep showing up where and when you want them least. But before escalating to lock and load when they make their uninvited appearance in your garden, consider this; every favored plant in your garden was once considered a weed with ancestral ties traced to its undomesticated origins.
Earlier this summer, a green, low growing succulent became more than apparent in my garden. Much like a strategic invasion, its arrival was both sudden and ubiquitous. To make matters worse, some Google sleuthing identified this garden interloper as a USDA convicted noxious weed. Nothing was spared, flower and vegetable beds, the underside of fruit tree canopies and my berry patch were now blanketed by this suspicious specimen.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a native of the Eastern Mediterranean, now enjoys a global presence and is most probably making a visit to your garden as well. Its fleshy leaves grow in a mat-like pattern radiating from a single taproot resembling a baby jade plant.
The noxious weed characterization by the USDA should come as no surprise, as many plants have been similarly stigmatized by agency administrators whose hands have never touched the soil.
In truth, weeds such as Purslane, preserve valuable soil elements lost to barren land left to the full onslaught of the elements, and as an edible provide greater nutrient density than vegetable starts featured at the local garden center. The one attribute these pesky plants lack is the ability to grow in a tidy row, so put your gardening bias aside and consider intelligent management versus eradication.
For many farmers, Purslane is an ally and beneficial crop companion. The single taproot and fibrous secondary roots are capable of tolerating compacted soil in addition to being drought tolerant.
The presence of this versatile plant stabilizes ground moisture, while inducing a humid microclimate that benefits crops grown in its proximity. Corn and other plantings grown with Purslane will follow its root through harder soil that they cannot penetrate on their own. This makes Purslane an ideal companion in the garden.
With accounts dating to 400 B.C., Purslane was revered for both culinary purposes and medicinal qualities. In ancient Greece, the successor to Aristotle, Theophrastus, often considered the father of Botany names Purslane as a must-grow herb, while Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), a Roman author and naturalist, considered Purslane as one of the most reliable healing plants.
Ma Chi Xian (Purslane, Portulaca Oleracea) has long enjoyed a prominent role in Chinese pharmacopoeia for its considerable list of recognized health benefits. Long regarded as the longevity herb, it is also considered a natural antibiotic due to its ability to inhibit infectious organisms in the body. The leaves are used to alleviate pain and swelling from insect and bee stings, snake bites, boils, and an internal treatment for hot flashes, night sweats and dysentery. Due to its benefits to the skin, Purslane is now extensively used in the cosmetic industry.
Amidst the many positive attributes associated with this humble plant, perhaps the most surprising is its rich background as a food source throughout antiquity. Whether it is eaten raw or cooked, the moisture rich leaves are crisp with a lemony tang and a peppery kick.
Early Americans considered Purslane as a diet staple and my favorite anecdote regarding the use of Purslane emanates from Mount Vernon in first lady Martha Washington’s “Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats.” This collection was her family’s heirloom recipes gifted to her upon her marriage to George Washington, and featured her favored recipe for “Pickled Pursland.”
Although Purslane’s status would eventually be downgraded to that of weed, it is now trending in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated chefs. Its re-discovery gives testament to the culinary traditions of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Mexico where Purslane is used fresh in salads, stir fried, an ingredient for soups and stews, a condiment to enhance seafood, or chopped and baked in pastries. If Purslane has not “volunteered” in your garden, there’s good news; it is now becoming increasingly available at farmers markets, so keep an eye out for it during the summer season.
Health benefits and nutrition
Did I say Superfood? You bet. Research performed by Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington discovered while working at the National Institutes of Health that Purslane ‘had the highest level of Omega-3 fatty acids of any other green plant. It also contains vitamins A, C, B, and E and dietary minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. Although reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in the 1980’s, America is just now becoming aware of its many benefits.
While our nation’s agricultural products are shunned in international trade due to a reliance on genetically modified seeds, and petrochemicals, and the consumption of such food has been implemented in the sharp decline of life expectancy within our own citizenry, it may be time to look elsewhere for your nutrition. If Purslane has made an appearance in your garden, it may be time to experiment with this new ingredient in your own meals. You can’t beat the price, and you may just like it.