Got Weeds? Eat ‘Em!
Purslane (Portulaca oleraceae), a rapidly growing annual with fleshy leaves, is an aggressively invasive weed in local gardens. However, it is not listed in the Colorado Weed Management Handbook (2004) as a troublesome weed. In defense of purslane, Fernald, et al. (1958), referring to World War II “victory gardens”, asserted that “the crop of Purslane has more potential value for food than the ignorantly nursed or neglected planted crops.” Nevertheless, most gardeners vigorously weed it out, but usually after it has weakened favored crops and reseeded itself.
Common purslane is a native of Eurasia, perhaps brought in purposely by immigrants as garden herbs, as dandelions were. Indeed, there are indigenous North American purslane and dandelion species that were important food sources for Native Americans as well as for wildlife. Now they are being out-competed by their more aggressively growing Old World relatives.
The invaders, in turn, have become important food sources for wildlife as well as for some people who welcome the more productive species (Dunmire and Tierney, 1995; Martin, Zim & Nelson, 1951.) Harrington (1967) gives detailed instruction on purslane husbandry, summarized as letting the patch grow, harvesting the young shoots for the entire season.
Seeds stay dormant for years if buried deeply enough and germinate when cultivation brings them to the surface and the ground warms enough. Although purslane seeds germinate as late as July 4 in Gunnison, by August 4 the plants will be smothering most other plants and soon will become a dense patch unless you harvest the young shoots diligently. These shoots can be eaten as fresh salad, dried and ground for soup stock, cooked as a pot herb, or pickled.
The plants are a water-wise herb, being quite resistant to drought. It is also possible to buy seed of domestic purslane varieties that grow cleanly upright and lack much of the bitter taste of older wild shoots. However, if wild purslane is present, it could hybridize with the cultivar and the offspring will revert largely to the wild form.
Harrington gives the following procedures for preparing garden purslane for a meal:
a. Fresh salad greens: use only the youngest shoots, mix them with other greens, e.g. mustard greens, and drizzle with oil and vinegar, and a small amount of sugar.
b. Potherbs: select young plants or shoots, wash them and strip the leaves from the stems, boil the leaves for about 15 min. or longer, depending on altitude. Change the water once if they are too bitter. [Steaming, stir-frying, or microwaving will preserve more nutrients, but will not lessen any bitterness.] Harrington (1967) “found them to be excellent”, mild in taste, slightly mucilaginous in texture (like okra) and a bit sour.
c. To mitigate the “fatty feeling” (sic in Harrington), try mixing purslane leaves with bread crumbs and beaten eggs (Fernald et al., 1958), baking the mixture “until done” (as one might with an okra casserole or quiche.) Harrington mentions that the purslane shoots have often been used to thicken soups.
d. Pickled purslane: blanch the leaves and young shoots and prepare like regular pickles in vinegar; the preparation will last at least over winter.
e. Drying for winter: Native Americans, particularly Puebloans, crushed and dried purslane shoots, and stored them over winter, boiling them for soup when needed. Grinding the dried leaves to powder could make a nice soup stock or flavor for bread flour. Like dehydrated dandelion leaves, drying reduces the bitter taste.
f. A good reference on preparation of wild plants for winter storage is by Kowalewski (2007). Although he describes scores of species in detail, purslane is strangely omitted.
g. Seeds, though tiny, may number over 50,000 per plant and were ground by Native Americans for mush (mixed with other grains). Harrington considered the seeds tastleless, though. Dunmire & Tierney (1995) think Puebloans no longer collect and grind the seed.
h. Harrington concluded that purslane would be a fine survival food, as well as a tasty salad and pot herb.
What about flowering portulaca (Moss Rose), which can also be pretty invasive? Wouldn’t that make a colorful salad or potherb? However, ornamental P. grandiflora is a South American species that has never been publicized as an edible plant. It may be worth some careful experimentation, for it could have edible flowers like Nasturtium and Day Lilies. The native purslanes were used medicinally for controlling diarrhea, and the South American Portulaca could have similar or more extreme effects, so be careful.
Other purslane relatives (Portulacaceae) include Miner’s Lettuce (Montia [Claytonia] spp.), whose leaves are delicious during the entire growing season, and Spring Beauty (M. lanceolata) which is totally edible with a sweet little tuber that is good raw or cooked. Neither of these species is common enough to be eaten casually (Tilford, 1997).
-Bob Willey, Gunnison County Advanced Master Gardener
Colorado Weed Management Association. 2004. Troublesome Weeds of the Rocky Mountain West, Eight Edition.
Dunmire, W.W. & Tireney, G.D. 1995. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province – Exploring Ancint and Enduring Uses. Santa Fe, Museum of New Mexico Press, pp. 178-179.
Fernald, M.L. & Kinsey, A.C., revised by R.R. Collins. 1958. Edible wild Plants of eastern North America. New York, Harper & Brothers, pp. 195-197.
Harrington, H.D. 1967. Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, pp. 87-89
Kowalewski, D. 2007. Wild Plants — Winter Food. Countryside & Small Stock Journal, Sep/Oct. 91:8, pp. 57-67.
Martin, A.C., Zim, H.S. & Nelson, A.L. 1951. American Wildlife nd Plants, a Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. New York, Dover Press, pp.393-395.
Tilford, G.L. 1997. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula, MT. Mountain Press Publishing Co. pp. 98 & 138-139.
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