August 27, 2011
Growing up in the Midwest a salad was defined by what you put on it rather than by greens that comprised it. Iceberg lettuce was topped with dressing from a jar. French? Thousand Island? Blue Cheese? These were the questions posed by the waitress when one ordered a salad. No one talked about micro greens, arugula or maché.
Times have thankfully changed and our palates have been educated to enjoy a wide variety of salad greens. In fact, it seems like each time I go to market I discover a new seasonal green to add to my salad bowl. However, many of the "designer" greens that are now au courant were once considered as chicken feed or even worse, eradicated as weeds.
Which brings to mind the question, what is the difference between a plant and a weed? Interestingly the word "weed" is derived from the Old English word for grass or herb. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered."
Of all the weeds known to man I think that the one that falls most readily into this category is purslane (Portulaca oleracea). Farmers also know it by its other less-glamorous moniker, "pigweed." Purslane is a beneficial weed in that it is not usually domesticated, but is edible. It also is considered a companion plant by some gardeners. It's blanketlike coverage forms a humid microclimate for neighboring plants. Purslane is just recently coming into vogue, appearing on menus in restaurants that feature locally sourced products and sold in bunches by a few vendors at farmers markets.
Purslane is one of the oldest known plants, native to India and Persia. It has thrived for centuries in gardens and landscapes around the world. The Romans and Greeks enjoyed it as a vegetable. Cultivated in Europe as early as the 16th century, purslane was brought to England in the 17th century. It was enjoyed both as a cooked and raw vegetable. The French blend it in equal proportions with another less familiar herb, sorrel, to make the classic bonne femme soup. In Holland, the stems are pickled in salt and vinegar for winter salads. Because it contains large amounts of vitamin C, it was an important herb eaten by the early settlers of North America as a remedy for scurvy.
If purslane has been around for so long in so many countries why is it unknown to most people? Why isn't it a regular offering at the salad bar? The reason may be one's perspective. Because of its invasiveness, purslane is often classified as a weed and its nutritional value is overlooked.
Purslane often gets a bad rap, but it can be a wonderful addition to our repertoire of salad greens. It is slightly crunchy with a lemony taste. It is extremely easy to grow, but use caution because it will spread invasively. Purslane is a water-wise plant requiring little water, thriving in dry conditions. Although it will grow just about anywhere, it prefers a loose sandy soil. You can find it growing invited or not in orchards, vineyards crop fields, landscaped areas, gardens and roadsides. Be careful if you decide to do some foraging for your next salad or stir fry — spurge (Chamaesyce species), which looks similar to and sometimes grows near purslane, spurge is poisonous and has stringy stems with a white milky sap. The stems of purslane are thick and contain a translucent sap.
Purslane has fleshy, succulent, egg-shaped leaves and round reddish stems. Small yellow five-petal flowers open on sunny mornings from May to September. It is a prolific self-seeder. The seeds are tiny and black. A single plant can produce more than 50,000 seeds. Its many branches trail close to the ground spreading to form a mat like covering. It is a persistent plant that rapidly colonizes. In no time a few plants can grow into a dense carpet that is difficult to control. The best way to manage purslane is to plant it in a container or designated bed.
Purslane has long been used as a medicinal herb to heal wounds and bring down fevers, or pull "heat" from the body and cool hot tempers. A crushed leaf placed under your tongue will relieve your thirst on a hot day. In ancient times it was spread in a circle around a bed to ward off evil spirits and spells and to protect lightening from striking.
Its history as a medicinal herb is well founded — purslane is a powerhouse of nutrition. It is rich in vitamins and minerals; an excellent source of vitamin A, the B complex vitamins, C and E. Purslane is also notably high in magnesium and contains calcium, potassium and lithium. The plant is unique in that it contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. Most people rely on fish oils for omega-3 fatty acids. Purslane is a good choice for those wishing to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids without using animal products.
I have used purslane as a substitute for basil in pesto and with micro greens in salads. The results have been delicious. Purlsane is economical, easy to grow, delicious and nutritional — truly a combination that can't be beat.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.