Saturday, November 14, 2015

Foraging: Identifying and Eating Purslane (avoid poisonous spurge!)



Purslane: abundant, tasty, very nutritious, and pretty easy to identify--with just a couple pointers!



Purslane, (latin name: Portulaca oleracea), is a wonderful, edible "weed". It's tasty, versatile, highly nutritious, easy to find, grows everywhere and is relatively easy to identify. It's not native to North America, and so is generally considered to be an invasive weed. For those of you with an interest in sustainable eating, choosing invasive species for your meals is one of the most sustainable, locavore options. There's even a word for it: invasivore!

Purslane does have one dangerous look-a-like: the potentially deadly spurges. (Euphorbia varieties). I find that they really don't look that much alike, and there is one tried and true way to tell them apart--making purslane a good plant for even a novice forager. 

With that in mind, I'd like to tell you everything I know about purslane, including how to identify it, how to not confuse it with spurge, flavor profile and some basic cooking tips. 



Purslane quick history

Purslane has spread throughout all of the Old World, (Europe, North Africa, and Asia). I have heard conflicting accounts wether it originated in India, the Middle East, or the Far East. It't eaten fairly frequently through out it's range, especially in the Indian subcontinent. With European imperialism, purslane spread to Australia and North and South America, and it's eaten there too (especially Mexico)--just strangely not in the U.S. or Canada in the modern day. It was apparently eaten in parts of the US as recently as WWII.

Purslane can be found most anywhere, as can adapt itself to a variety of climates, from arid to damp, hot to cold, and sun to shade. (Not including Antartica and other uninhabitable places, like parts of Canada and Russia. :P  Just kidding!). It's a succulent, and can adapt itself to environments that experience the extremes of seasonal monsoons and months-long droughts.



Identifying Purslane: Portulaca oleracea*

The leaves have a slight thickness to them, and a slight waxy feeling
to the touch. Compare with the papery-thinness of spurge below.
  1. Purslane grows low along the ground, generally under 3". Occasionally it will create a bunch or cluster, which can grow about 6" high. It grows from a central taproot, so all the branches of an individual plant will come together at the same place. 
  2. Purslane is a succulent. Both stalk and leaves have a thick, fleshy feeling to them. The leaves are not as thick as in most decorative succulents, but they are thicker than spurge. Think the thickness of kid leather. (See close-up pic). 
  3. Stems can be red or green with a reddish tinge. Leaves are a bright green.
  4. Leaves grow out from the stalk in a "star", of four leaves. Sometimes 2 of these leaves will form before the others, but most times you see the leaves on a plant they will be in groups of 4--often 2 large and 2 small. This looks very similar to a whorled leaf configuration.
    See pic.
    The four-leaf "star" like growth of purslane
  5. Purslane leaf edges are smooth, not serrated. (They don't have jagged or toothy edges)
  6. Purslane stems are smooth and hairless. 
  7. Most importantly: if you break the stem of purslane, there is NO sticky white liquid (called latex), Purslane may be a little sticky, but it will be clear, not white. However, small the latex on small spurge plants can be very hard to notice and/or dry up quickly, so make sure to use ALL identification points.






*As always you should never accept anything you read on the internet without verifying it for yourself with either a local expert or several publications. Colors can vary from monitor to monitor, and images are not as clear as in printed materials. Personally, before I eat anything I verify it with at least 3 reliable sources. I have found this to be a remarkably good way of ensuring my safety when foraging. 



Spurge (probably creeping spurge). Note the delicate thinness of the leaves,
and also how the leaves come off the stem in opposite pairs. 

Poisonous Spurges: Euphorbia varieties

  1. The spurges also grow low along the ground, generally under 3", and they too can grow higher. They also grow out of a central point. 
  2. Spurges are not succulents, leaves are thinner. If you look at this spurge image, the leaves are almost paper-thin. Not all varieties are this delicate, but none are as thick as those of purslane.
  3. Stems can be red or green with a reddish tinge. Leaves are a rich green in most varieties. 
  4. Leaves grow parallel to each other on the stem in pairs. (2s). These leaves will always be opposite each other on the stem, unless they are growing at the junction of a branch. (Then the 2 leaves and the branch will come off the stem evenly spaced--like the spokes in a wheel). But there will never be more than 2 leaves at the same point on the stem. 
  5. Every spurge I know of has serrated, indented or toothed leaves. However, sometimes these serrations are very small, and the teeth can also be small and widely spaced--appearing smoother. 
  6. Most (but not all) spurges have hairy stems. Some also have hairy leaves.
  7. Most importantly: if you break the stem of a spurge, it will ooze a sticky white liquid, called latex.
Because of leaf pairings, spurge tends to grow more horizontal than
purslane. A flatter flat, if you will.
Euphobia is a pretty big genus, including poinsettias, which are also poisonous. Just as poinsettia can become a problem for house pets, spurges have caused deaths among sheep. If you have spurge in your yard, I would try pulling it out if you have young children or pets who go out unescorted. 

Sustainability

Purslane is a non-native species in the Americas. (To be completely fair, there may be native varieties, but they have interbred and/or died out from competition with the ones brought over from the new world). Purslane is commonly considered to be an invasive species, but it's not. . .sort of. Invasive generally implies that the plant is doing active harm to the native environment/species. Eating, or just plain old destroying, invasive species is generally considered to be beneficial.

However purslane has been here so long that it's pretty much done whatever damage it's going to do. Like dandelion, it's very possible that purslane wiped out native species when it arrived, but the settlers weren't keeping track, so we really have no idea.

Eating a bunch of purslane, even wiping out a local patch or two isn't going to do any damage to your environment. (Provided you don't use chemicals, of course). Of course, I don't recommend eating something till you wipe it out, because then you don't have anymore. And, in my opinion, purslane is a very pretty plant, as well as a tasty one. And, given that it can and will grow everywhere, and spreads quickly and well, you can use it for a nice ground cover in areas you are having difficulty getting anything to grow. Purslane will grow from cuttings, so if you want to get rid of it, don't compost, and dig it up before it goes to seed. Kept in check, however purslane is apparently a good companion plant for gardens, and helps retain soil moisture.

Eating Purslane

Purslane is a great vegetable for anyone: forager, gardener or freegan. Unlike some wild plants which are bitter (and need to be boiled) or tough and stringy (and do best in a food processor), purslane has excellent flavor and texture, and can be prepared raw or cooked. The leaves, flowers and stems are all edible, (I have never heard of anyone eating the roots--so I would avoid them).

Raw, they have an juicy, crunchy texture. I would call it closest to celery, but without the stringiness. The flavor is somewhat sour, but with a tartness. Unlike lemony sorrel knotweed, I would call it a "green apple" flavor--but with a mellow grassy note. Many people describe the flavor as being somewhat salty, like a mild seaweed. I haven't found this, but I haven't gotten to eat purslane that much. Where I used to live, it was often only found by roadsides and parking lots--areas where you would risk ingesting dangerous chemicals. Use purslane raw in salads, on sandwiches, or on a foraged Crudités board, paired with a lambsquarters dip, a knotweed salsa, or garlic mustard horseradish!

When cooked, purslane looses much of it's unique texture, becoming soft like cooked spinach. If you cook it lightly, however, it makes an excellent substitute for pasta--like a thick spaghetti or an udon noodle. Purslane is naturally vegan and gluten free, but has mucilaginous aspect: like okra, purslane will release a sticky liquid when cooked. This "mucilage" can be used to thicken soups and stews, but if using purslane as a pasta substitute, you will need to rinse the veggie thoroughly and may need multiple changes of boiling water. Cooking purslane also removes much of the sour apple flavor, making it taste more like a spinach or other cooked pot-herb.

Other cultures around the world use purslane in baked goods, including semi-sweet applications. I haven't, but I'll let you know if I try.

Nutrition

I rarely get to talk about nutrition in wild plants, because the studies just haven't been done. But purslane has a long history of consumption, throughout the world, and we know a lot about what it has to offer.

Purslane is a nutritional powerhouse. Vegetarians and vegans especially will be excited to know that purslane has more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant. It's protein and iron concentrations are higher than in any cultivated vegetable--including kale. Purslane has more magnesium, vitamin A and vitamin E than kale as well. In a calorie to calorie comparison, it has more potassium than a banana. In addition there are some B vitamins, a good amount of vitamin C, a fair amount of calcium, and a smattering of those micronutrients people say we should get more of. . .(but generally don't tell us how!) All nutritional data has been gathered from the Wikipedia page. 

Note of caution

Purslane has oxalates in it, similar to Japanese knotweed and wood sorrel. As we've mentioned before, many veggies you can buy in the store have oxalic acid, including spinach and rhubarb. People with kidney problems and/or rheumatoid arthritis should avoid these foods. The sick, the elderly, the very young and women who are pregnant or nursing should also avoid wild plants on general principle. 

7 comments:

  1. I've been seeing purslane all over my yard and I'm glad I cam across this - super helpful info! Thanks!

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    1. Great! I'm so glad it was helpful for you. Are you going to try some?

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  2. Any advantages on eating this plant for diabetics type 2.

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    1. I've got to be honest: I'm not familiar with using purslane to control diabetes, but it wouldn't surprise me at all. I did a quick google search, and it looks promising.

      Purslane is such an incredible nutritional powerhouse. And when your body gets the nutrition it needs, naturally it's going to be able to heal itself better. The modern diet often contains nutritional deficits, not only in vitamins and minerals, but also in micronutrients. We are just starting to understand the role micronutrients play in helping with blood sugar, but my guess is the impact is high.

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  3. This article you have written is absolutely excellent! I can't thank you enough for all your information! Will be utilizing my new found knowledge to better my family myself and others.

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  4. Thanks, this is awesome. Since we're growing a garden again this summer, this stuff is popping up everywhere the soaker hose goes, and I was wondering if it was the same thing I saw at the farmers market for $3 a bag. I just nibbled some, and it will definitely be going in my salad tonight.

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  5. How much would a person have to consume to really reap any benefits?

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