Portulaca oleracea, purslane, is a highly nutritious annual succulent. Evidence of its use by man was found in archeological sites going back to at least the seventh century BCE. It grows in many parts of the world including Grimes County. Purslane is low-growing, forming dense mats about 6 inches high with a spread of up to 2 feet. The succulent stems and leaves are filled with clear mucilaginous sap. Clear sap is an important identification point as there are similar looking plants with white sap, inedible look-a-likes.
The stem is redish-green. When removed from the main plant, it remains moist and viable for several days and will reroot. The green paddle-shaped leaves, often outlined in red, are opposite but may be alternate near the base. They’re about an inch long and ½ inch across, attaching directly to the main stem with no petiole, leaf stalk. Yellow flowers, ⅜ inch, have 5 petals, forming where the leaf meets the stem. They only open when it’s sunny, and then stay open for only about 4 hours. Seedpods have a top that flips back like a jar lid. The plant produces more than 10,000 tiny seeds, less than 1 mm in diameter, viable for up to 40 years. After passing through a bird’s digestive system, more than 60% remain viable. When the plant is uprooted, seeds can continue to ripen for about a week.
The taproot is tough, pushing through hard soils that other plants cannot. Roots of nearby plants, including corn, will follow it down to access nutrients and moisture they would not have been able to get on their own. That makes purslane a good companion plant. This type of species interaction is known as ecological facilitation.
In traditional systems purslane treats earaches, the genitourinary tract, skin, etc. Eaten raw or cooked, purslane is a common vegetable in most of the world. It is tasty, a bit crunchy. Seeds, whole or ground, are cooked and used as a cereal, to make bread or thicken soup. Ashes of the burnt plant are a salt substitute. Oxalic and malic acid make purslane tangy. The Wikipedia entry at en.wikipedia. org says “Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids… than any other leafy vegetable... It also contains vitamins… and dietary minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron... [It is] non-recommended in large quantities for people who have uric acid or kidney problems or must restrict dietary oxalate levels.”
Picked in the morning, purslane will have more acid and be tangy. In the afternoon it will be sweeter as the malic acid changes to glucose. The 1920 book “Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada” by Charles Francis Saunders said on page 131 that “a certain tribe of California Indians… were accustomed to lay the leaves near the nests of red ants, which running over the greens would flavor them with a formic acidity that served in lieu of vinegar.”
Deborah Richardson is a freelance reporter for The Examiner with a fondness for flora in its natural setting.