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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Foraging for Purslane

Purslane sauted in butter with onions and garlic.

I love foraging. I love writing posts about foraging. But every time I go to write a post on foraging, I start questioning myself.  Will this post actually help most of my readers? Does this plant actually grow where my readers live and not just locally? Is the plant easy to find, especially for readers who don't live in the country side? Because of different climates, is this plant actually in season where most of my readers live (various parts of the US)? Does the plant taste good enough and not entail too much hard work that most readers will actually try it out themselves?

Purslane (portulaca oleracea- also known as pigweed, verdolaga, pusley, or little hogweed) poses none of these problems, and is actually the perfect foraged food to feature on my blog.

Why? Because it is absolutely delicious and mild. You don't need to be an exotic foods lover to enjoy eating purslane. It takes no advance preparation to be able to eat it and has many different culinary uses.

But the best part about purslane is it grows EVERYWHERE! There isn't a single continent in the world other than Antarctica that doesn't have purslane growing on it. Whether you live in Canada, New England, Southern US, the Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa (and a host of other places I didn't mention because this list was getting long), you're in luck! Because come summer, and this plant grows where you do. You just need to open your eyes.

Purslane likes heat, so is likely to come up during the hottest part of the summer, and doesn't need so much water either, but does well even where it's very rainy during the summer. It grows amidst other plants on grassy knolls, from between cracks in driveways and sidewalks, among your other plants in your vegetable garden, etc... The only thing it doesn't really like is too much shade or too much water.

Why would you want to forage purslane? 
Well, for starters, because it tastes nice. Purslane has a taste that is hard to describe. I'd say it tastes somewhat like a cross between cucumbers and green beans, with a bit of lemon, when raw, and when cooked it still tastes like that, with the slightest touch of asparagus (but barely- and I've never heard anyone else describe the taste as asparagusy). An interesting fact- the earlier in the morning you pick purslane, the more sour it is, something having to do with the way the plant does its photosynthesis.

Purslane can be eaten raw in salads, sauted with onions and garlic, in stir fries, and in soups. I've cooked purslane with chicken, cooked it in an omelet, used it as a topping for pizza, to name but a few more options.

It's very yummy and good for non adventerous eaters. Two people I know who decidedly do NOT like anything "weird" or "exotic" or "funky" ate some purslane that I offered them, and then kept on asking me for more and more, they liked it that much.

The other reason why someone might want to forage purslane is it is tremendously healthy. It has one of the highest sources of omega 3 fatty acids of any plant source, and is very rich in vitamins and minerals as well. (See here for a more complete list.) On top of everything else, as a foraged plant, its naturally organic, and it's free!

How do you identify purslane?

Purslane grows out from one main taproot, and then grows in a rosette, sprawling out in all directions. Sometimes, as in the pictures below, the plant is flat against the ground, but sometimes it grows with its "branches" going upward. It never reaches too high though, even if it isn't flat against the ground, as it grows more out than up.


Purslane's stem ranges from a green to pink to red, and sometimes can be brown. Its stem can be quite thick- as wide as a finger towards the middle of the rosette, and tapers down to a thin stem at the outside. There often are thinner stems branching off of each larger stem. Along the stems at regular intervals are thick, fleshy, rounded teardrop shaped leaves. 
The top of the leaves are a shiny, dark green, while the underside is a more matted light grey green color. The leaves retain water; they're thick like and remind me of jade leaves.
Purslane has small yellow flowers that only open up in the morning. (I don't have a picture of that.) When mature, they have seed pods that crack open, scattering little black seeds (roughly the size of poppy seeds) everywhere!

A bunch of picked purslane. Note the varying color of the stems.
Close up of an individual stem and leaves of a purslane plant. Note the seed pods containing little black seeds and the black seeds on the table.
The one thing important to know about purslane is that there is a "look alike" plant known as spurge, that might be mistaken for purslane, and it is poisonous.
This is spurge.


The stems of spurge are much thinner than purslane stems, and spurge leaves are thin, unlike purslane's thick, succulent leaves.
Spurge is poisonous, and you don't want to be eating it, but fortunately it's easy to tell them apart with one simple trick. When you break spurge's stem, a white, milky sap will leak out of it. When you break purslane's stem, you get nothing.

Grow Purslane
If you're someone like me who doesn't have that much success with gardening, because you usually forget to water or take care of your plants, or if you just have a window box or two and want to be able to grow some food that'll replenish itself quickly so you get food for a long while, growing purslane is for you.

If you're able to get your hands on some purslane, instead of washing the plants directly in the sink, wash them in a large bowl of water. When you take out the purslane, you will notice many, many, many black seeds remaining in the water.
Take this water, pour it into your window boxes (or your garden), and after a day or two, water the dirt again. Water somewhat every day or other day until you see some little things poking up through the ground. This is your baby purslane plant! Don't get the dirt too wet, just make sure it doesn't dry out too much either at this stage.

Once you see your purslane start growing, water every day or other day, and watch it grow bigger and bigger. When it seems big enough, cut back some stems and eat them.
You totally don't have to be vigilant about watering it. I've gone on vacation for nearly a week and came back to an overflowing planter box filled with really healthy, succulent purslane.
I try to water my purslane, now that it's big, once every other day, but at the least, once a week.
Purslane is very, very forgiving, and its the easiest thing I ever grew.
And it just keeps replenishing and replenishing itself, so you don't really run out.

One side of one of my two planter boxes filled with purslane. How I make sure to never run out of this very yummy veggie.
Have you ever eaten purslane before? What did you think of it? How would you describe the taste? How do you enjoy it most?
If you've never picked or eaten purslane before, do you think you've ever seen this plant growing in your area? Do you think you'd feel comfortable enough after reading this post to be able to identify purslane and pick it and eat it?
Do you have anything growing in your garden now, or in window boxes? What do you have growing and providing your family with food?


9 comments:

  1. Yes, I just picked a bucket full of the weed out of my flower pots and garden area. I was wondering while pulling it up if it was purslane or not and wondering what it tasted like. Wish I had read this earlier in the week, I would have tried it. I'm sure there's a lot more around and it will come back anyway. I thought you gave a great description and photos of it and spurge. I have both in the Louisville area.

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  2. Thankyou for your site! I am learning about wild foods and want to share what I'm learning. I travel by semi-trailer and yesterday the first plant I saw when I stepped out of the truck was purslane. I recognized it immediately from researching it online. I have a blog too...a travel blog featuring wild edibles and foodways. I love your emphasis on purslane being a great food for people being scared off of "weird wild edibles." For instance, I was really freaked out but interested in trying milkweed buds! But, I did. Looking forward to finding a healthy patch of purslane to harvest from!

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  3. I saved this link for when I got back from a vacation because I was 99.9% sure I would come home to a driveway full of purslane, pushing up through the many cracks and growing along the edge. Sure enough. It's everywhere. Thanks for this fabulous tip!

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  4. this has popped up in between all of the plants in my garden...I have been pulling it up at the suggestion of the extension advisers here...well I will just have to cook it! Thanks for the "jade plant leaf" comparison...I thought that very thing when confronted with this hardy, happy plant! and thanks for the spurge warning. My oldest daughter's comment about life in China, "If it's green, they cook it" has lead me to be braver about foraging as an adult...as a kid I ate "out" all the time as we wild children hiked and rode our bikes all over the So. California hills...bring back the adventure!

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  5. this has popped up in between all of the plants in my garden...I have been pulling it up at the suggestion of the extension advisers here...well I will just have to cook it! Thanks for the "jade plant leaf" comparison...I thought that very thing when confronted with this hardy, happy plant! and thanks for the spurge warning. My oldest daughter's comment about life in China, "If it's green, they cook it" has lead me to be braver about foraging as an adult...as a kid I ate "out" all the time as we wild children hiked and rode our bikes all over the So. California hills...bring back the adventure!

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  6. Good information! I am getting adventurous again...as kids we always ate "out" while rambling among the hills in So. California. This hardy, happy plant has volunteered prolifically in the garden at my new home in Sonoma County...I have been pulling it out vigilantly on advice from the local extension office...now I will cook it! I appreciated your "jade leaves" reference...that is just what I thought when I first examined purslane.

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  7. I just started reading your blog - thank you for sharing your experiences with us! I live in California and I know there's a ton of "weeds" that I can forage but since it is California and a suburb where I live...I worry there might be pesticides or residues of dog waste. Is it a problem for you and do you know how to get around such concerns?

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    Replies
    1. The sites I visited suggested that it was best to find it and then transplant it to your own window box or garden. You may have to wait a season, but at least then you know how it's been treated.

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  8. I love purslane and grow it in my garden. I usually plant some near the base of my other plants so it gets watered along with them and serves as ground cover to help keep the moisture down (I live in the desert). I've had poor luck growing it from seed but I find it popping up in lawns, sidewalk cracks, and all kinds of other places where it isn't welcome and I transplant it into my garden. I'm a vegetarian and I was told about it a few years ago because of its high Omega 3 contents. I prefer it early in the morning when I find it to be more tangy or lemony. My partner, who is an exceptionally picky eater, loves a salad of fresh chopped purslane and parsley (about twice as much purslane as parsley) with chick peas, feta, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

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