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Nasty portulaca shows a positive side: who knew?

The strangest salad I’ve ever eaten was at a family reunion when a cousin tossed together portulaca and a few other greens with vinaigrette. While it is true one can expect to dine on almost anything at a potluck family gathering, this caught me by surprise because at our house portulaca – with its squiggly red stems and fleshy spoon-shaped leaves – was a much-despised weed. When even one tiny plant appeared in the garden, it was quickly disposed of, far away from the vegetable plot since everyone knew it grew fresh roots on merely touching the soil.

Much later I found out – again to my surprise – that portulaca is actually a plant bursting with nutrients including an array of vitamins and minerals as well as omega-3 fatty acids, flavenoids and fibre. Who would ever guess that this annoying little plant contains six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene (precursor of vitamin A) than carrots?

Some of you might be confused since you may have enjoyed the fuchsia, orange, and yellow blooms of portulaca in garden borders or trailing from pots on the patio, and never once thought of eating the foliage. Definitely we are all owed an explanation.

First, there are two broad categories of portulaca – the ornamental flowering species (which in themselves are divided into various types) and portulaca oleracea or purslane which includes both the wild weed and a cultivated variety which has similarities to the weed, but grows larger and has more tender leaves. It is purslane we are interested in at this point.

Both wild purslane (which has been called Little Hogweed, Pigweed or in Low German Fatte Hahn) and the cultivated varieties (which go by names such as Pusley or Verdolaga) grows in almost every country around the globe, and has been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for centuries. The leaves have a tangy taste like watercress and can be eaten like spinach, yes, in salads, stirfrys and casseroles.

Almost every ailment

Medicinally, purslane was used by various cultures for almost every ailment which might indicate some desperation in finding a cure. Whatever the case, the plant in various forms has been used to treat such wide-ranging maladies as scurvy, pulmonary (lung) diseases, headaches, dysentery, insect bites, colitis and diabetes.

While we may not be inclined to eat purslane for its healing properties since it is difficult to nail down its specific curative properties, should we be more vigilant in including it in our diets for its nutritive value? It certainly wouldn’t hurt since the plant does, indeed contain significant amounts of vitamins A, C and E and some B vitamins as well as the minerals iron, calcium, potassium and manganese. It is also a rich source of omega-3 and antioxidants, both of which contribute to a healthy cardiovascular system. One advantage of eating purslane is as you weed the garden, you could immediately bring it into the kitchen for supper preparation. However, since we have numerous tasty sources of most of the nutrients it contains, I can’t imagine the plant – either in its wild or domesticated state – becoming very common on our tables.

While you may have some anxiety about ingesting purslane, it’s possible to get all the goodness the plant offers in capsule form with no artificial preservatives added. You may also want to try a skin cream which contains purslane oil, as well as aloe vera, and oils extracted from safflower, macadamia nuts, apricot pits and sesame seeds. The cream can be applied topically to soothe insect bites and burns (the omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E in purslane would help healing), or simply use it to make skin feel smooth and soft.