When I lived on a rural property in Ontario, I battled purslane in my perennial garden every summer. There was no end to the determined fleshy stems that put down root wherever it came in contact with earth.
Little did I know I was sitting on an Omega-3 empire.
In the cracked, dry earth of summer, purslane pops up in the most inhospitable of spots, making itself at home in gardens beds and gravel and between rocks and cracks in driveways and sidewalks. Most of us just yank it out and throw it on onto the compost pile.
Unaware of its virtues as a nutritious food, North American gardeners and homeowners know this plant best as an annoying weed. Bright jade in colour, with the plump character of a succulent, it’s easy to identify. Fleshy paddle-shaped leaves cluster, petal-like, around a rubbery magenta-tinted stem. It spreads eagerly, shoots reaching out in every direction from a central taproot to create a thick mat.
Its origin is Eurasia, but thanks to its hardy nature and limited needs – a minimum of 20˙Celsius for germination and hardy seeds – it has easily become naturalized over land. Long-established in North America, fossilized pollen in Crawford Lake in Southwestern Ontario confirms pre-Columbian presence; the seeds, viable even after digestion, arrived ahead of the explorers, likely in the stomachs of birds. When Samuel Champlain arrived in what is now Massachusetts, he noted that this plant, pourpier in France, was covering the ground surrounding the Indigenous peoples’ crops of squashes and corn.
In Mexico, this same plan is called verdolagas. It’s long been a volunteer companion to the milpas – indigenous agricultural systems of corn, squash and beans. Along with the other wild greens such as amaranth and lamb’s quarters(quelites) that self-sow at the bases of the crops, it’s harvested and eaten. Verdolagas are readily available in Mexico’s markets most of the year; they feature in traditional dishes and are prized by influential modern chefs, like Ricardo Muñoz Zurita (chef and culinary researcher of Larousse Diccionario Enciclopedico de la Gastronomia Mexicana), who regularly feature verdolagas on their restaurants’ menus.
“Leafy Purslane appeases the plot’s thirst” wrote Columella, the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman Empire. How true this is. Ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed purslane as part of their diet: a simple salad of olives, tomatoes, feta and purslane is very Mediterranean. It’s considered a culinary gem in the Middle East, Turkey, and India where it is cooked with other greens. From time-to-time in history it has appeared in North American cookbooks, often pickled or as a salad green, but otherwise, it’s been considered a weed, unworthy of a place on the table.
Yet, as a food, it’s versatile: its young, tender shoots are succulent and crispy; the flavour, tangy, like salty lemon-water on the tongue, makes it a bright addition to herbal salads. The entire plant, aside from 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, like okra, will thicken a sauce slightly. 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.
It has been called the “vegetable for long life” in Chinese folklore and compared to spinach, there’s just no contest. It’s high in Vitamins A, C, E and B-complex; rich in calcium and magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium. But most remarkable are its levels of alpha-lineolic acid (ALA), an important Omega-3 fatty acid, which are higher than in any other land-based plant. In the magenta-tinged stems a bioflavonoid 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.
Come June, purslane will, once again, begin making its enthusiastic appearance. As history has shown, resistance is futile while the benefits at the table are many.
Paula Wolfert’s Anatolian Purslane, Lamb and Lentil Stew