Portulaca oleracea is a groundcovering succulent weed with fleshy stems and thick roundish leaves. It grows in hard, rocky, dry soil
We removed an old crabapple tree and lava rock from a planting bed near the driveway last year. The area languished all summer filling with weeds until I had a load of compost delivered which was mistakenly dumped in this spot. We wheelbarrowed as much of the compost off as we could but a large lump remained. Why not grow something useful in it? So corn it is. My plan was to grow a 3 sisters patch of corn, bean and squash. One little problem is that the subsoil is hard, rocky clay fill covered with black plastic and old tree roots! The black plastic is a very 70s technique (gone awry) used in an attempt to prevent weeds. I’ve tried to rip as much of the plastic out as I can but big chunks can still be seen poking out. It’s also very hot and dry next to the driveway and the compost being naturally hydrophobic is very difficult to wet thorougly. Water tends to roll over the surface and not soak in. So the soil is a mess here. I diverted the rain gutter to the area and dug a small swale to collect storm water from the house, but with no rain, it hasn’t done much good. I came home after being gone 10 days and things were looking pretty dried out and weedy. I also noticed a large amount of the ‘weed’ purslane, Portulaca oleracea, covering the ground. Of course my first instinct wast to rip it all out but decided it was holding the soil and not really getting in the way of the corn at all. It looks like my instincts are spot on as I soon discovered purslane is an incredibely valuable plant and not a weed at all! It is actually considered a ‘companion’ plant, where it holds the soil for other plants and stabilizes soil moisture. Purslane roots are able to penetrate hard, rocky soil where others can’t and brings minerals up from the lower soil depths. Other plants, like corn, can then send there roots to follow purslane deep into the soil. Very cool!
Purslane is also a highly nutritious plant and prized for its lightly sour and bitter taste by cooks and herbalists all over the world. Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable! It contains 0.01 mg/g eicosapaentoic acid (EPA) which is usually only found in fish, algae and flax seed. It also contains plentiful amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants including vitamins A, C, B and carotenoids. Purslane is high in minerals magnesium, calcium, phosphates and iron. The alkaloid pigments found in purslane are powerful anitoxidants and have antimutagenic properties. One cup of fresh purslane contains 300 to 400 mg of alpha linolenic acid. One cup of cooked leaves contains 90 mg of calcium, 561 mg of potassium, and more than 2,000 IUs of vitamin A. Purslane does contain oxalates similar to spinach so don’t eat too much if you are prone to kidney stones – and drink more water.
So of course I decided not to remove the purslane and simply dug more swales into the contours of the pile to help it hold water. Today I’m planting pole beans to vine up the corn and some squash seeds in between corn pants. The purslane will still have plenty of room to wander below. I have a whole new respect for the lowly purslane plant and am glad I didn’t rip it out by its roots! I’m now looking at it through the fresh eyes of cook and herbalist. Check back soon for news on how it tastes and recipes!