Witness Post: Purslane
Our beloved chief of buildings & grounds/maintenance manager in Gearhart, Ramon Anguiano, takes wonderful care of our boutique inns on the North Coast of Oregon. He has a keen eye for plants. He is even pickier than I am at spotting weeds, and making sure that they are dug up by the roots and composted. From English Ivy to Blackberries, from Morning Glories to Dandelions, he is on top of them all. One day, after we had shared a salad with brightly colored Nasturtium flowers mixed in, he asked if I had ever eaten Pursley.
“Parsley?” I asked. “No, Pursley,” he repeated. I had never heard of it. He said it was a plant that he had eaten in Mexico both cooked and raw, and it mixed well with greens in a salad. I looked it up on the internet and found that it was a most interesting plant with lots of nutritional value. It is also known by a lot of nicknames: two of the least attractive are pigweed and little hogweed. Called Common Purslane, it is also known as Moss Rose and Verdolaga.
My brother, Ned, loves the potted variant of Purslane, called Portulaca. Although it is best known as an annual, Ned has successfully cultivated Portulaca to last for years in southern Virginia: summers on the outside deck and winters inside in a south facing window. The flowering Purslane plants are in the same botanical family with the ever-colorful Portulaca: Portulaca oleracea. There appear to be varieties of Purslane all over the planet, from the Old World to the New. And in every location, it is a valuable garden and dining room comestible with special nutritional value.
The Beneficial Weed
Purslane is often considered a weed in the US, because it grows up in gardens that are planted with other fruits and vegetables. The tap root of the Purslane seems to be a great ground breaker for corn and other vegetables, which struggle to get their roots digging deeply enough to find moisture. In that way Purslane is sometimes considered a “beneficial weed,” which does not seem like high praise.
The stems, flowers, and leaves are all edible, although some cultures feel the taste is sour and salty. It is picked and used in salads, stir-fry dishes, soups and stews. The Aborigines in Australia pick the Purslane and harvest its seeds, which they make into seedcakes, an Outback delicacy. The Greeks, who call it Andrakla, use the leaves and stems with feta cheese, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. The Andrakla is added to salads, or to casseroles with chicken. Many cultures in the Mediterranean pick Purslane and use it similarly as do the Greeks, as a replacement for spinach in soups, salads and casseroles.
Purslane has some quality nutritional value, so that it should not be overlooked by the health conscious shopper. It contains more Omega-3 Fatty Acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, which is one of the preferred ways to consume these acids. It also contains an extraordinary amount of Epicosa-pentaenoic Acid (EPA), which is an active ingredient of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, mostly found in fish, algae and flax seeds. In addition Purslane has a partial alphabet of vitamins such as A, C, E, and B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, as well as dietary minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. To give a sense of proportion: one hundred grams of fresh Purslane leaves (about half a cup) contain 300 to 400 mg of Alpha-Linolenic Acid. One cup (250 ml) of cooked leaves contains 90 mg of calcium, 561 mg of potassium, and more than 2,000 IUs of vitamin A. To bring in the voice of caution, it is important to note that one half-cup of raw Purslane leaves contains as much as 910 mg of oxalate, a compound implicated in the formation of kidney stones. That said, many common vegetables, such as spinach, also can contain high concentrations of oxalates and cooking Purslane helps reduces overall soluble oxalate content. As much as 27% of the soluble oxalate can be removed in cooking, an important consideration for those thinking of Purslane’s nutritional benefits as being part of a healthy diet.
When stressed by low availability of water, Purslane, which has evolved in hot and dry environments, switches to photosynthesis using Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM). The CAM pathway works at night when the Purslane leaves trap carbon dioxide, which is converted into Malic Acid (the souring principle of apples), and, in the day, the Malic Acid is converted into glucose. When harvested in the early morning, the leaves have ten times the Malic Acid content as when harvested in the late afternoon, and thus have a significantly more tangy taste.
Purslane and corn summer salad
Although it sounds like a skit from an old Firesign Theatre show “A heaping bowl of groat clusters!” I mean, “Purslane” is actually very tasty. Try some yourself with grilled corn, onions and a light dressing of your choice and you can be the judge.
FOOTNOTES & REFERENCES
 A. P. Simopoulos, H. A. Norman, J. E. Gillaspy, and J. A. Duke. Common purslane: a source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol 11, Issue 4 374-382, Copyright © 1992.