By Margret Hefner
“Leafy Purslane appeases the plot’s thirst,” wrote Columella, the Roman Empire’s most important writer on agriculture. How true this is. In the cracked, dry earth of summer, purslane pops up in the most inhospitable of spots, making itself at home in garden beds and gravel and between rocks and cracks in driveways and sidewalks. Most of us just yank it out and throw it on the compost pile.
Unaware of its virtues as a nutritious food, many gardeners and homeowners know this plant as an annoying weed. Bright jade in color and with the plump character of a succulent, it’s easy to identify. Fleshy paddle-shaped leaves cluster around a rubbery magenta-tinted stem as if they were petals. It spreads eagerly, shoots reaching out in every direction from a central taproot to create a thick mat.
Its origin is Eurasia, but its sturdiness and limited needs – a minimum of 20 Celsius for germination and hardy seeds – allowed it to spread across the planet. Fossilized pollen in Crawford Lake in Southwestern Ontario confirms purslane’s pre-Columbian presence; the seeds, viable even after digestion, arrived ahead of the explorers, likely in the stomachs of birds. It was Samuel Champlain who noted that this plant, called pourpier in French, was covering the ground surrounding the indigenous crops of squashes and corn.
Further south, in Mexico, this same plant, called verdolagas, has long been a volunteer companion to the milpas, indigenous agricultural systems of corn, squash, and beans. Verdolagas is harvested and eaten, as are other wild greens that self-sow at the bases of the crops, such as amaranth and lamb’s quarters (quelites). It is readily available in Mexico’s markets most of the year, and it is featured in traditional dishes and are prized by influential modern chefs.
Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed purslane as part of their diet; it’s considered a culinary gem in the Middle East, Turkey, India, and throughout the Mediterranean. As a food, it’s versatile: its young, tender shoots are succulent and crispy and the tangy flavor, almost like salty lemon-water on the tongue, makes it a bright addition to salads. The entire plant, with the exception of the roots, is edible. As the plant matures and the stems get thicker, it benefits from cooking and integrates well into stews; its mucilaginous quality will thicken a sauce slightly, similarly to okra. As a side to proteins, it is complementary to pork, lamb, fish, and poultry. When cooked with other greens, purslane adds a zip of citric acidity, just as a squeeze of lemon juice would.
Compared to other greens, even spinach, it’s a nutritional powerhouse. It is high in Vitamins A, C, E, and B-complex and rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium. Its standout feature is its levels of alpha-lineolic acid (ALA), an Omega-3 fatty acid, which are higher than any other land-based plant. One caution however: like spinach and rhubarb, it is high in oxalates, meaning people with predisposition for kidney stones or with gut-sensitivities may want to curb their consumption.
Refreshing Melon, Cucumber and Purslane Salad
- 2 cups of your favorite juicy summer melon, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (or make use of that melon baller in the back of the utensil drawer!)
- 1 average-sized cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cubed
- 1/2 red onion, cut lengthwise through root end and thinly sliced
- A couple of handfuls of well-washed purslane, primarily the leafy clusters (save the stems for pickling)
- Handful of mint leaves, chopped or torn
- 1 or 2 tsp freshly grated ginger root
- Vinegar (natural apple cider or red wine)
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1/2 cup sheep or goat feta cheese or queso fresco
- Place the thinly sliced red onion in a bowl. Pour boiling water over the onion and leave to sit for about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain the water. Sprinkle vinegar and a generous pinch of salt over the onion slices. Add chopped fresh chile or a drop of hot sauce for some kick, if desired. Set aside. You can do this a day ahead and store in the fridge.
- Prepare the melon and the cucumber, cubed or cut as desired. Toss these together in a bowl with a pinch of salt, the juice of one lime, the mint, and the grated ginger.
- Add the purslane just before serving. Toss together and add another squeeze of lime, if needed.
- Portion onto plates and sprinkle the crumbled cheese over to serve.
Margret Hefner is a Canadian chef who has cooked her way around Mexico since 2009. In 2016 she self-published an English-language eBook guide to that country’s indigenous and regional fruits and vegetables. You can find out more at fyvmexico.com.