IF YOU CAN’T BEAT IT, EAT IT: PURSLANE
by Master Gardener Stephanie Wrightson
As the weather warms up, a number of warm-weather weeds start emerging in Sonoma County. We are admonished to not let weeds go to flower and seed because one plant may turn into thousands. Purslane, also known as pigweed, is one of these and grows so rapidly in the spring that it is hard to beat. But why try to beat it when you can eat it?
In addition to sidewalk cracks, common (wild) purslane is often found in cultivated areas
In Latin cuisine, purslane—called verdolaga—is grown for its edible succulent leaves which have a sweet, yet acid-like (some say “lemony”) flavor somewhat like watercress or spinach. A popular cultivated annual variety is P. oleracea var. sativa—18-inches tall with larger leaves. This variety will have even better flavor than common purslane and will be easier to harvest because of an upright habit. Don’t confuse common purslane with Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)—another edible wild plant also known as winter purslane.
Start cultivated varieties indoors in seed trays in late spring for a summer crop. Transplant them to individual containers when plants are large enough to handle. Harden them off and transplant them to the garden once the threat of frost has passed, planting them six-inches apart. If you, instead, direct sow when frost is no longer a danger, thin them to six-inches apart. Plant again in late summer for a fall crop. Or, if you’re concerned about purslane taking over your garden, you may choose to grow purslane in a container or indoors as a micro-green.
Harvest purslane when it is young—before it goes to seed and when the leaves and stems are tender. Always remove flowers; cutting back mature plants allows regrowth. If you are harvesting common purslane from your ornamental garden, make sure that the area has not been sprayed with pesticides—always thoroughly wash your harvest. Purslane is crisper when harvested in the morning, but sweeter when harvested in the afternoon.
According to the University of California, purslane is a minor agricultural crop due to its popularity in ethnic cooking as well as its reputed health benefits of bioprotective nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins, and amino acids). Not only is it a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, it also is high in vitamins A and C and contains calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. If you have problems when you eat large quantities of other green, leafy vegetables (they all contain oxalates), eat fresh purslane in moderation. If you are pregnant or have any concern about the oxalates, check with your physician as you might with any new food.
If you’re not eating the common purslane growing in your garden, don’t let it become an invasive weed. Hand-weed and mulch to control it. For mulch to be effective, it must be thick enough to block all light to prevent further seed germination. Do not allow purslane to compete with landscape plants and crops for water as well as nutrients. Because of its dense matting habit, it can block light and germination of other seeds. Hoeing purslane is not an effective control method because the fleshy stem can re-root, especially in irrigated areas. Hoeing, cultivation or tilling only causes purslane to multiply. A single plant may produce 240,000 seeds, which may germinate after 5 to 40 years—a good reason to pay attention to this plant prior to flowering…or, to weed ‘em and eat ‘em.