Recently I had the privilege to work at the St.Joes farm as part of my University of Michigan Dietetic Internship. It was an amazing rotation, in large part due to the sunshine, fresh air and periodic cherry tomato treat. During my rotation I found that an essential part of organic farming is weeding, and while there I did quite a bit of exactly that. Crouched down in a bed of beets and carrots my eyes quickly became trained to identify the encircling zombie miscreants that I would yank out knowing full well they would return in a few days. However, one of those irksome weeds, in my opinion, is more forgivable than the rest; it’s not one I want to see choking out a purposefully planted bed of vegetables but instead, chopped up and in my salad. The weed I’m talking about is actually a wild succulent called purslane (Portulaca oleracea). In addition to plaguing gardens, invading yards, and squeezing through the cracks of sidewalks, this resilient plant also happens to be a superfood. And I don’t use that term lightly, purslane is uniquely nutritious in that it has the highest amount of heart-healthy ALA omega-3 fats of any edible plant and the highest amount of melatonin (antioxidant) of any tested fruit or vegetable; it’s also packed with micro-nutrients and is most nutritious when eaten fresh.
Continue reading to know more than you probably ever wanted to about purslane:
Identification & Storage
Purslane is a garden floor creeper with smooth reddish stems. The leaves are thick, firm and fleshy with no hair and clear sap. Purslane is best stored in the fridge in a jar with a bit of water. Once plucked purslane only keeps for a few days so use it up right away.
According to the Purdue University Horticulture Department purslane may have been cultivated more than 4,000 years ago. It is believed to be native to Persia, Africa and India, and was introduced into Europe in the 15th century as a salad herb. The plant became an integral part of the diets of ancient Greeks and Romans. Over time the seeds spread to the Americas but didn’t really catch on as a regular ingredient in the cuisine as it did in Asia, the Middle East and throughout the Mediterranean countries.
As mentioned above, purslane contains the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy vegetable. Researchers that measured the fatty acid content of purslane found that the leaves contain up to 2.5 milligrams of fatty acids per gram, with 60% in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a heart-healthy, inflammation-lowering omega 3. Purslane seeds contained up to 170 milligrams of fatty acids per gram, 40% of which was ALA. According to the American Heart Association one should strive for around 1.8 to 2 grams of ALA a day. Therefore a 3.5-ounce serving of purslane is a source for about 20% of that amount. It should be noted that there are three types of omega-3 FA’s: ALA, Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA); ALA is the most common form in the Western diet and is gotten from plants and vegetable oils. EPA and DHA come from fish and, in the case of DHA, fortified foods; these two forms are especially low in the Western diet. While there has been research showing that ALA has cardio-protective effects, especially in populations with low fish consumption, it’s the EPA and DHA that have the most potent health benefits. The conversion of ALA to the EPA and DHA forms is very poor and therefore while purslane is an amazing source of ALA omega-3’s it should not be taken in place of, but rather in addition to, EPA and DHA forms.
Another unique property of purslane are its high levels of melatonin, possibly the highest among all fruits and vegetables…by a lot. Melatonin has many important functions, as an antioxidant it scavenges for free radicals and it also reduces the immune systems inflammatory response. Research has also shown that it acts in synergy with other antioxidants found in purslane, a detail which highlights the importance of getting your antioxidants through plants rather than through supplements. Given the plants high concentration of melatonin and n-3 fatty acids, which act via similar mechanisms to inhibit cancer cell growth and reduce tumor cell proliferation, along with its overall stellar antioxidant profile, research shows that purslane may offer protection against cancer, cardiovascular disease and a number of other chronic diseases.
In addition to all this, this little plant contains the highest content of vitamin A among green leafy vegetables. It also contains vitamin C and B-complex vitamins like riboflavin, niacin, and pyridoxine and provides some of the highest levels of dietary minerals such as potassium (494 mg/100 g), magnesium (68 mg/100 g), calcium (65 mg/100 g), phosphorus (44 mg/100 g), and iron (1.99 mg/100 g).
Ok, enough flattery! Lets talk about the best ways to get all this goodness into your body.
Before using purslane I like to rinse it really well and depending on where I’ve plucked it up from I may soak it briefly in a bowl with a bit of vegetable wash and then drain it before consuming. I’ve used purslane fresh in salads and cooked into frittatas and recently I tossed it with some other herbs in a simple olive oil potato salad that worked really well. It’s tasty, with a slight lemony flavor and a nice crunchy texture. As mentioned above, it is most nutritious when eaten fresh so try adding it to smoothies or pestos. It is also often boiled in soups, sautéed with spices, or dried and used in tea. Most important is not to overthink it! It’s a mild herb and can complement a range of dishes.
Below I’ve included a few links to recipes featuring purslane so you can scavenge for it on your way home and try it tonight:
Greek salad with heirloom tomatoes and purslane:
Ikarian Potato Salad with Purslane:
If you’re looking to get really into “urban foraging” I suggest you google Wild Edible Plants (WEP) to find which other nutritional powerhouses are going incognito in your area.
Purslane is reported to have been a favorite food of Mahatma Gandhi as well as Henry David Thoreau! So…there’s that…