A Gift of Cooling Purslane

My new friend disappeared under a canopy of summer squash plants, and when she reappeared she was waving a plant, roots and all.

“Is this purslane?” she asked. “Looks like it from here,” I responded.

I had just enjoyed a stimulating and intriguing tour of a special homestead that is a heady blend of pioneer spirit and modern convenience built and nurtured by a woman and her son, who were later joined by a creative and energetic husband. Between them they have transformed 13 acres into a rich Florida habitat, using the land and all its gifts to the fullest extent.

This exceptional woman offered me a delicious little Portulaca pilosa, and I gladly accepted. I have tried to grow the cultivated version in my garden for several years, but it seemed to not enjoy the Florida weather. This hardy little specimen, however, survived the ride home in the car and a few hours of neglect, before I nestled her under a pine tree in the corner of the garden, but not before popping few succulent leaves into my mouth. P. pilosa is suited to the rich, sandy soil in a garden and will hopefully thrive in her new home.

Portulaca pilosa
Portulaca pilosa
Portulaca has a long history of both medicinal and culinary use, and in Europe, it was considered protection against magic and was placed around sleeping areas.

Although several species of purslane grow in Florida, only two are native: P. pilosa, which grows abundantly across the state, and the P. rubricaulis, which is confined to coastal southwest Florida. The yellow-flowered P. oleraceae, which more resembles the cultivated variety with its paddle-shaped leaves, is native to Persia and India, although it appears abundantly around the state. P. oleraceae was used both medicinally and nutritionally for thousands of years and quickly spread throughout the world. It has been found in archeological sites in Mexico dating from 6000 BC, and there is some evidence that purslane was brought to the New World by the Vikings when they explored Newfoundland.

Look for portulaca in Florida from spring through fall in sandy pinelands, vacant lots, and right in your own garden, where you might mistake it for a weed! P. pilosa has linear, entire, thick leaves that are randomly opposite but mostly alternate and about 3 cm long with little hairs in the axils. The pink flowers have 5 petals and 2 sepals.

Nutritious Wild Food
A wonderfully succulent and cooling herb to eat in the heat of the summer, purslane provides a variety of nutrients including vitamins A and C as well as minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorous. The plant contains 3.5 milligrams of iron per 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) and more omega-3 fatty acids than most other leafy vegetables greens.

You can eat the sweetly sour leaves and stems raw in salads, process it into syrups, beverages, or even simmer it for 10 minutes and eat it cooked. Be sure to wash it carefully because as a ground creeper, purslane is typically full of sand and may be gritty to the bite. Purslane like okra, makes a wonderful thickener when added to soup. The stems can be pickled.

Although the seed pods mature unevenly, they will mature after the plant is harvested. So it can be pulled up when some of the seeds are ready, left to dry for about two weeks, and then pressed through a sieve to winnow the black seed from the dried plant. The seeds can then be ground into flour, which many will see as laborious effort for not much result! But according to Euell Gibbons, they can be blended with other flours for bread or baked into delicious pancakes reminiscent of buckwheat cakes, topped, of course, with butter and syrup.

Although there are no poisonous look-alikes to purslane, remember to always sort through your wild harvest, just in case you have gathered some other unidentified plants, which might be harmful. For instance, Chamaesyce sp., which is poisonous, appears abundantly in Florida and may, according to Brill grow with purslane.

Medicinal Properties
Purslane is cooling and demulcent and can assist in the reduction of fevers and other “hot” conditions, including inflammation, dryness and thirst. The Cherokee people used the juice for earaches, and a compound decoction was used to treat worms. Historically purslane has been used as a poultice for burns, to alleviate insect stings, and to soothe sores. A syrup made with the juice was purported to be helpful in treating dry coughs (Grieve).

Whether you use purslane as an edible or employ her cooling and mucilaginous medicinal properties, remember also to welcome her in your garden and appreciate her recumbent nature and pretty flowers as a reminder to relax and enjoy!

  • Brill, S. 1994. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. New York: Hearst Books.
  • Gibbons, E. 1962. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Company.
  • Grieve, M. 1931/1971. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
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    3 Responses

    1. Thank you so much! Just what I needed today. I am trying to find natural plants for my sister who just moved to Florida and needs to supplement their diet naturally for financial reasons. I am sending her this article and thanks again. Michele

      Posted on July 12th, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    2. Thanks for this info. I ate a fair amount of purslane on a peach-farm near the Mojave Desert, and I was so fond of it, I have been thinking of it for years after, though neither knowing the correct spelling or how to identify it. Now I can begin enjoying this great and abundant gift here in Bradenton Florida. Thanks again!

      Posted on October 12th, 2009 at 2:57 am

    3. So glad to be of help! Native purslane is rather small, but the more robust cultivated variety should grow well in a garden in your area. Watch out for those wet rainy seasons though, when purslane can succumb to soggy weather.

      Posted on October 12th, 2009 at 1:11 pm

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