Plant of the month – purslane

A succulent purslane plant sprawling on the soil
Purslane makes a delicious green vegetable.

While also an Australian native, purslane or pigweed (Portulaca oleracea) is widespread globally and is a common summer-growing plant on most continents. Its use is documented from the Middle East by the ancient Persians, and it is still widely used as a cooked or salad vegetable in the Mediterranean. It was likely introduced to Europe by the Saracens via Spain and it thus became a common vegetable in Elizabethan England.

The young shoots are fleshy, slightly tart and mucilaginous, and provide a salty tang to any salad. Lightly steamed, or wrapped in foil and thrown into the coals or on the barbecue, it is delicious with butter and pepper, making it an excellent “greens”. The leaves are rich in vitamins C and A, with some B vitamins as well. The tartness is due to oxalic acid, which cooking destroys, so people with rheumatism or gout should avoid eating it uncooked.

The seeds, used by indigenous Australians to make a flour, are the highest known vegetable source of omega 3 oils (alpha-linolenic acid). To harvest the tiny seeds, the indigenous Australians developed a method of piling the plants in heaps on a flat hard surface, bark or animal skin to let them dry. The seeds would automatically drop in a concentrated pile, where they could be easily gathered.

This highly nutritious and valuable plant is easy to grow in any garden or pot. You will occasionally find it commercially.

Some plants deserve to be more widely grown and recognised as food. Purslane is one of them. If you see it growing on waste land or ungrazed areas (animals seek it out quickly), nip off the growing shoots and collect an ancient and highly nutritious food source. Better still, dig one up and transplant it into your garden. Any sunny spot, a minimum of care and watering, and you’ll have a regular source of greens.

Further reading

Low Tim. 1991. Wild Food Plants of Australia. Harper Collins Australia.

Wikipedia. Portulaca oleracea.