DIGGING IN: Purslane—to Harvest or to Weed?
Image: mature purslane, photo courtesy of Oregon State University
Several years ago, I returned to East Lansing in mid-July from a week-long vacation and found innumerable purslane plants that had grown considerably among our staked tomato plants. I recognized the plant from the edges of sidewalks in town and paths on the MSU campus but had not paid much attention to it.
With so much purslane suddenly available just outside my kitchen door, I had to decide whether to yank it out or consider harvesting it. Having read Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus as a college student in the early 1970s, I decided to give this “weed” a try.
Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea, also known as pigweed) is a succulent annual with small, fleshy dark green leaves on purplish stems that can spread out low to the ground in a circle more than a foot across, open space permitting. It is easy to pull up an individual plant by the root, but nevertheless difficult to get rid of the plants altogether, as evidenced by an entire PhD dissertation on this subject by Christopher Proctor at University of Nebraska (2013).
Purslane can reproduce vegetatively, from a piece of cut stem, so hoeing the plants and leaving the detritus in your garden is ineffective. Also, numerous, tiny black seeds develop in pointy capsules at the end of each stem that spray out from the plant when a capsule pops open – which may well happen as you pull out the plant.
If you choose to forage for purslane, you are not likely to find it in East Lansing this early in the season. However, if you hope to harvest from your garden, look for the small plants now so you won’t try to get rid of them. These photos (below) show what they look like this week, although some may be even smaller, depending on how long ago you dug in your soil for planting. My aim is to enjoy harvesting purslane plants from the garden while they are young and then pull them up, so they won’t crowd the vegetables I planted. (Article continues after photos.)
Purslane hasn’t always been regarded as a weed in this country. The MSU Library’s significant collection of historical American cookbooks is a rich resource on this topic. In a search of PDFs in the Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project, purslane shows up as a vegetable available during the months of July, August and September in The practical housekeeper; a cyclopædia of domestic economy ... comprising five thousand practical receipts and maxims (New York, 1857) and as an item for sale in The market assistant, containing a brief description of every article of human food sold in the public markets of the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn (1867). Purslane appears in several cookbooks, especially in soups, including an eel soup (that also includes whole pears!) in Henriette Davidis' practical cook book, comp. for the United States from the thirty-fifth German edition, published in Milwaukee in 1897. Colonial cooks also put up pickled purslane.
I chose to look for more recent culinary suggestions. My favorite uses of purslane are raw in salads, particularly with chickpeas and arugula in the recipe that appears below. I’m also a fan of salads with whole grains, and I have added a few handfuls of purslane to wheat berries, black beans, green beans, red onions, parsley, basil and a simple vinaigrette made with red wine vinegar and a touch of Dijon mustard. Purslane is also a good addition to potato salad. I do not add purslane to lettuce salads because of the significant difference in texture; I prefer it with other heartier ingredients. Purslane can also be cooked, such as in scrambled eggs or sautéed with oil or butter and garlic or with garlic and tomatoes, by itself or along with chard.
The key to preparing purslane is to keep it simple. Cut young stems, with the leaves still on, into 1 or 1.5 inch lengths, and wash them. The stems have a bit more flavor, with a lemony bite, and added pleasant crunch. Try not to include the seed capsules. The first year I used purslane, I made the mistake of pulling off the leaves and using only them. I found this much less interesting, in terms of both flavor and texture.
Purslane is enjoying something of a revival, and is showing up in some CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) deliveries and farmers market stands, although I don’t know whether we will see them in these places in East Lansing later this summer. Proponents of purslane point to its health benefits, including as a rare vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids and a very good source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Magnesium, Potassium and other nutrients.
A search for purslane on Amazon brings up eight distributors of purslane seeds, followed by a container of “Spring Weed Preventive.” So decide for yourself whether to experiment with eating purslane; don’t expect a consensus any time soon.
Chick Pea (or Cannellini bean) Salad with Purslane and Arugula
1 cup drained cooked or canned chick peas or cannellini beans
1 teaspoon capers
2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 scallion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or as needed
1 1/2 cups arugula leaves, torn into pieces
1 1/2 to 2 cups purslane with tender stems, cut into 1-inch lengths
Combine chick peas, capers, garlic and scallion. Add olive oil and lemon juice. Mix in arugula and purslane. Season with additional olive oil, lemon juice, or salt and pepper, if desired.