October 6, 2020

Inviting the Purslanes Over

Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
I didn't so much come to common purslane as it came to me. It is a wild edible that grows almost everywhere around the globe, including disturbed sunny spots in my yard as well as cracks in my lanai's concrete deck. It tastes pretty good, is drought tolerant, and grows like a weed. Actually, many people call it a weed. When looking into its nutritional value, I was shocked to find claims that it has the highest level of ALA omega-3 fatty acids of any vegetable source. This is an intriguing claim as I'm not sure that vegetables are even a good source of omega-3s. Purslane is also on the extraordinary side of high when it comes to antioxidants, e.g. seven times as much Vitamin E as spinach. With all this hullabaloo about its fantastic nutritional profile, I wanted to eat more purslane.

Incorporating purslane into my diet was much easier said than done. The wild version that grows in my yard has small leaves that make it hard to pick any quantity. The idea of picking a cup of leaves for a salad has me thinking about Don Quixote and tilting at windmills. The stems are edible, but don't have great mouth feel in a salad. The seed pods are somewhat hard and tend to spill a gazillion tiny seeds when they open. These seed pods are almost as big as the leaves. And yet, there are plenty of purslane salad recipes out there. Investigation yielded cultivated varieties of purslane with larger leaves. Unfortunately, rumor has it that they don't taste as good and aren't nearly as hardy as their wild cousins; and some of them may not be edible.

Suriname Purslane with small flowers. This bush is about 3' across and 2' tall
Scientific names: Talinum fruticosum, Talinum triangulare, and more.

Enter Surinam purslane. Although the leaves are small compared to lettuce or spinach, they are huge compared to common purslane. The leaves and stems are somewhat fleshy, like common purslane. Unlike many greens that turn bitter during the Florida summer, Surinam purslane maintains its mild flavor, even while flowering. There are no giant seed pods, just a few small flowers here and there. They are a short-lived perennial that grows quickly and self-seeds easily. And they are quite ornamental. Thank you Juliane S for gifting me my first Surinam purslane plant.

My sweetheart and I performed a taste test to see if common purslane and Surinam purslane tasted the same. There was unanimous agreement that they are remarkably similar. It's hard to say if the nutritional profile matches that of common purslane due to lack of research and varying methodologies. I found a reference to a preliminary study from 2001 by Ezekwe et al. The study showed that Surinam purslane is rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and protein.  

Thick stems separated from tender shoots and leaves.

Surinam purslane is a welcome addition to a salad. Both the leaves and stems have a mild flavor, so they mix well with strong-flavored greens. They cook up nicely, when added to a stir fry, soup, or stew. They can be served on their own as a side dish. Surinam purslane is widely grown and used in India, West Africa, and Amazonian Brazil. I found lots of recipes for Nigerian waterleaf soup, where waterleaf is another name for Surinam purslane. I was excited to try out some recipes, until I found out that they all include fish, beef, cow hide (!?!), or tripe as a primary ingredient. I decided to go my own way.

Having sidelined the Nigerian cow hide 'vegetable' soup, I will delve into sautéing Surinam purslane. In the simplest version, you heat some oil and/or butter in a frying pan. Add some salt and a fresh herb or spice, and cook on medium heat until soft or slightly browned. Mix in the Suriname purslane, and continue cooking and mixing, until it changes from its initial lighter green to a darker green, usually just a few minutes. 

Chop the thick stems of Surinam purslane and cook them a 
bit to soften them up, before adding the leaves and tender stalks.
Here the stems are cooking with some onions and garlic.

Add Suriname purslane leaves and sauté with garlic and onion

Ordinarily, I cook vegetables in vegetable oil and embellish with lots of herbs and spices. I'll start with fresh onions and garlic and then consider some red pepper, coriander, paprika, mustard, turmeric, rosemary, basil, and on and on. If I want to taste more of the vegetable and less of the flavorings, I will sauté in butter and add one beloved herb and some salt. Butter just tastes better. I am tempted to get down in the weeds comparing the health characteristics of various cooking oils and fats, but I will restrain myself. You can create a simple sauté or use complex flavors with multiple greens. You can make it a one-pot meal, by adding some protein. Most importantly, you can apply this style of cooking to most any vegetable or combination of vegetables.

Add fried tofu to sautéed Suriname purslane for a one-pot meal

Why don't we see Suriname purslane at every market in South Florida? It grows nicely most of the year. It's an attractive plant and doesn't require much water or maintenance. Forget the markets. Why isn't it underfoot, along roadsides, and popping up in every unused corner of gardens in South Florida? 

Sea purslane

When I visited Maine many years ago, I was introduced to sea purslane. It is a salty and delicious snack with a succulent crunch. Think of it as the healthy alternative to potato chips. In Florida we have a similar plant, that we also call sea purslane. An early Fall beach walk can yield a tasty combination of salt and sweet - sea purslane and sea grape. I have been waiting for decades for sea purslane to show up in my yard. Since it hasn't, I will be planting one soon. Will it be salty, even though it's not growing on the beach? I intend to find out.

Sea purslane growing wild near the beach on Lido Key,
Florida in October. The stems turn red as the plant gets older.

There are a few considerations when growing and eating common purslane, Surinam purslane, and sea purslane. They are relatively high in oxalic acid. In general, this is not a problem; our bodies make oxalic acid all on their own. In very high doses, it can be a problem for those with certain underlying conditions. Eat That Weed provides a nice write-up of how to take advantage of nutritional powerhouse plants, such as purslane, while not overdoing the oxalic acids. 

Common purslane sprouting in a crack between two concrete slabs

Common purslane needs so little in the way of nutrients and water that it pops up and prospers in cracks in the sidewalk. I find such hardiness to be a benefit when it comes to edibles. Others do not share this sentiment, as you may gather from the following quote from gardening columnist, Molly Hackett - 

Purslane may not be evil incarnate, but it ranks high on the list of worst possible weeds. 

Suriname purslane is neither as hardy, nor as drought tolerant as common purslane. During rain-free periods of Florida's hot summers, the leaves will shrivel and lose some of their fleshiness. To protect against this summer heat, I plant in partial shade. Otherwise, it seems to love the sun, humidity, downpours, and sandy soils of Florida. As a perennial, Suriname purslane provides leaves year-round. The plant grows in tropical and subtropical lowlands around the globe. Surinam purslane self-seeds sufficiently that I have only planted it once, and I now have about a dozen plants. I have read that a 4"-6" vegetative cutting with the lower leaves removed can be planted in the ground leaving half the stem above ground. The new plant that grows will be ready to harvest in a month. I may try this out, just to watch one of nature's little miracles unfold in my backyard. 


Patrice said...

I love starting plants from leaves and cuttings, are there other plants high in omega-3? Trivia, oxalic acid is the reason you don't feed spinach to pet iguanas,

Diane Desenberg said...

Patrice, it would be awesome to have some reliable numbers concerning the nutrients in plants that grow easily here, including what are commonly referred to as "weeds".