Plump succulent stems of Portulaca oleracea spread like fingers across the fertile soil in the Gardens at Heather Farm’s rose and vegetable beds.
Most people consider it a pesky weed, but in many parts of the world, it is a delicate green, cultivated for its culinary and medicinal properties.
The exact origin of the plant is uncertain, however it became valued as a food by East Indians and Persians more than 2,000 years ago. Europeans have cultivated it as a nutritious garden vegetable for hundreds of years.
Common Purslane, as it also is known, was introduced in the United States by early immigrants as a source of food. It lost its appeal along with other greens, such as dandelion and nettles. American gardeners see it more as a nuisance in the summer garden, as it competes with our favorite crops, including tomatoes.
Portulaca oleracea is part of the Purlsane family, which consists mainly of tropical succulent herbs from South America. It has small, showy yellow flowers and spoon-shaped, thick fleshy, shiny deep green leaves that are always cool to the touch. The first known uses of Portulaca were documented in 1548.
Its name comes from the Latin word portula, or porta gate — a reference to the top of its seed capsule. Oleracea comes from the Latin holus or olus, meaning vegetables or pot herbs.
Because of its mucilaginous leaves, eating Purslane will hydrate the body. Consider it a free meal that is loaded with vitamins A and C along with iron, phosphorus and calcium.
To me, it has a mild cucumber flavor and makes a great addition to a summer salad or in a summer soup with sorrel. Its fleshy red stems radiate from the center and if truly happy in the garden, it can have a diameter of about 12 inches. Every stem will root as it creeps along, so it is important when pulling it out to make sure all of the stems are removed, otherwise it continues to propagate itself.
Portulaca oleracea is one of 500 species in the Portulcaceae family that includes a brilliant summer annual called Moss Rose or Portulaca grandiflora, which loves the heat and summer dry conditions of California.
I recommend growing one for beauty and the pollinators and one of the “weed” variety that can be harvested along with the tomatoes and cucumbers and tossed with a nice vinaigrette.