In the Garden Minute series of articles, we discuss gardening and foraging topics in small bites of 500 words or less, quick and easy to read for busy people.
Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea), may pop up in your yard or garden as a “weed” during the warmer weather. Unlike most weeds, purslane is not only edible, it is tasty and very nutritious. Crunchy with a slightly lemony flavor, the plant is a perfect addition to salads or juices. Purslane likes warm weather. However, in hot climates, it may be found year-round in protected and mulched garden areas. At the farm, we grow this plant on purpose because we enjoy it so much. Our rabbits and poultry also love purslane.
Common purslane has been grown for more than 4,000 years as a food plant and is still cultivated in many places. The plant is unusually high in omega-3 fatty acids (found mostly in fish and flax seeds). The plant also contains significant amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants. It also contains high amounts of oxalates (just as spinach does), so it should not be consumed excessively by those susceptible to forming kidney stones. Some other common names include garden purslane, little hogweed, pusley, and wild portulaca.
Identifying common purslane is not difficult. The plant grows out of a central root prostrate to the ground, sprawling in all directions. The stems have elongated, fleshy (succulent) leaves, broadest at the tip, like a boat oar. It has a thick, reddish/purplish stem. Leaves grow out from the stem in a "star" of four leaves. You may find purslane in other typical weed places, such as growing out of sidewalk cracks.
Purslane. Note the 4-leaf star pattern
The only similar-looking but poisonous plant you may find is spurge. Spurge also has a sprawling growth habit and can often be growing next to purslane. It may also have purplish stems. The best way to tell the difference is that spurges are not succulents; the leaves are very thin. Also, spurge leaves grow parallel to each other on the stem in pairs. Below are two photos of spurge.
You may find a succulent plant that looks similar to common purslane but does not have the boat oar shaped leaf. This plant has the common names “horse purslane” or “desert purslane” (Trianthema portulacastrum). Horse purslane has larger, rounded leaves, similar to coins. Although horse purslane can also be eaten – and was gathered as a food source by the Tohono O'odham native people – common purslane is the more typical garden “edible weed” and more palatable. Both plants have fleshy, succulent-type leaves. The major difference is the leaf shape.
For safety, before consuming a plant, be sure you have identified the plant correctly. Contact a knowledgeable source if necessary. Your local County Cooperative Extension can be helpful with plant identification.