Far from being a weed, the purslane herb is a delicious succulent that has many health and medicinal benefits. It’s true, this herb grows in the wild which gives you the impression it’s an invasive weed. But the truth is, its uses in the kitchen are varied and you can even cook it as a replacement for spinach.
To say that this herb has been around for quite a while is an understatement. There’s evidence it was a staple of Native American cuisine and traditional medicine long before the first settlers have arrived. And while you can also eat the wild purslane herb, it does have a pungent taste that puts some people off.
However, when you grow it in your garden, it tends to be sweeter and has milder flavors. It’s all about picking the right variety for your taste. Here we’ll cover the different varieties of this edible succulent, and how to grow, care, and harvest it.
Purslane Herb at a Glance
Native to Europe and North Africa, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) quickly spread to the farthest corners of the world where it was welcomed in every cuisine. Once it became clear that it can be cultivated, people started to grow the various cultivars instead of the natural species. Recently the herb became popular as a superfood thanks to the various nutritional values it has.
One of the distinctive features of this succulent is that it tends to grow horizontally and covers the ground. It rises no more than an inch over the ground but it spreads out easily. That combined with the fact that it grows in the wild gave it the reputation of an invasive weed. A reputation that it certainly doesn’t deserve. That said, the cultivation of purslane is prohibited in certain parts of the United States.
As part of the Portulacaceae family, purslane has a few cousins grown mainly for their ornamental values. These include wingpod purslane and moss rose. However, the edible purslane is less showy and has leaves that taste a little like citrus. Some varieties have a salty taste as well.
In the middle of summer, small yellow flowers bloom giving the plant some decorative value. However, once the flowers pollinate, they disappear and are replaced by pods of black seeds.
Benefits of Purslane Herb
Even though purslane shares a long history with humans both as a source of food and a staple in traditional medicine it never gained the same status as other veggies like spinach. This is surprising since it has more benefits than most vegetables you grow and consume. Here are some of the benefits of purslane.
- Vegetable substitute: Believe it or not, you can cook purslane the same way you cook other veggies. In many meals, you can simply replace spinach with purslane and you won’t feel a difference. You can also use it in salads, dips, and sandwiches to add juicy flavors to your snack.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Many dieticians and cardiologists recommend consuming a daily dose of these fatty acids since they are valuable for your heart health and keeping your immune system strong. This herb has 5 times more omega-3 fatty acids than spinach.
- Antioxidants and Vitamins: Purslane is packed with many essential vitamins. It’s rich in vitamin A which improves your vision and vitamin C which protects you against the flu and common cold. It also has high concentrations of antioxidants which protect the cardiovascular system.
- Cures Skin and Gastrointestinal Diseases: Before it was used for food, there’s evidence that purslane was an important component in traditional medicines from China to the Americas. It was prescribed as a treatment for skin diseases, indigestion, flatulance, and other stomach disorders. To this day, many people consume the raw plant to alleviate stomachache and treat acne.
- Minerals: Minerals are important for your overall health. They also strengthen the bones and prevent bone diseases. Purslane is packed with calcium and magnesium and it has decent amounts of iron and potassium. It’s no wonder it is considered a superfood.
Purslane Herb Varieties
The many cultivars of purslane are considered a better growing option than the natural species that grow in the wild. They have milder flavors and don’t have that pungent taste. Here are a few candidates to grow in your garden.
- Common Purslane: A very popular cultivar that grows close to the ground. It barely reaches more than an inch high but spreads about 18 inches across. It’s lush and bright green leaves are as beautiful as they are tasty and nutritious. It is easy to grow and has small yellow flowers that bloom in the summer.
- Golden Purslane: Named for its yellowish-green leaves that grow to a couple of inches. The leaves are tender and have a nice flavor when added to a sandwich or cooked as a vegetable. Unlike the common purslane, this golden variety grows tall and reaches about 10 inches high. The stems are also succulent and you can use them in salads.
- Goldgelber Purslane: One of the largest varieties by purslane standards. When fully mature, this giant towers 6 inches high and 12 inches wide. It’s also favored by many gardeners because it grows fast. It takes only 26 days from the day you plant it to harvest the leafy plant. The leaves are light green and tend to be a little longish than the other varieties.
- Gruner Red: The oval-shaped leaves grow on pinkish stems and look a lot like your regular weeds. It doesn’t help that it grows to 12 inches tall and tends to cover every space within its proximity. However, this is a legitimate herb, not a weed and its thick, meaty leaves are edible.
For the most part, you can either go with Common Purslane or the Golden cultivars. They don’t require much care or space to grow. They also tolerate different types of soil as we’ll see later.
How to Grow Purslane Herb
When it comes to planting purslane, there are many ways to grow this succulent herb. You can use seeds or grow from a cutting. Another alternative is to buy it from the nursery. However, since nursery plants might be contaminated with pesticides, it’s always recommended to grow your own purslane from seeds. Here’s how you can do it in easy steps.
- The best time to plant purslane seeds is in the summer. It requires warm soil averaging about 89 degrees Fahrenheit. They will usually germinate next spring.
- Make sure to prepare your beds in rows about 10 inches apart to give the herbs enough rooms to spread out.
- You can also start the seeds indoors and later transport them to the garden about 8 weeks later when the weather has warmed up.
- Select small pots and fill them with a general potting mix.
- Water the soil enough to get it moist then plant the seeds about half an inch deep.
- Place the pots in a bright area that doesn’t get direct sunlight and away from the wind.
- Keep the soil moist. If you worry about the temperature dropping, you can cover the pots with plastic.
- After about 3 weeks, the seeds will germinate.
- You can transport the plants to the garden 5 weeks later.
Purslane Herb Care
If there’s one thing going for the purslane herb, it’s that it can take care of itself. It’s a hardy succulent that tolerates different types of soil. It still needs many hours of sunlight a day and you have to watch out for the many pests and diseases that attack it relentlessly.
This is probably the only precondition of growing purslane. It requires full sun and needs at least 8 hours a day to grow and thrive. Choose a southern or western spot in your garden to grow the succulent. Keep in mind that if you’re growing the herb from seeds, make sure to keep the seeds away from sunlight. This is why starting the plant indoors is the recommended way since you have control over the amount of light they get. But once it’s growing successfully, it needs all the sunlight it can get.
As with many succulents, purslane is a thirsty plant. It needs a lot of watering. Notice we said watering, not water. You should irrigate the plant frequently but don’t soak the soil. Keep it moist and aim the water at the root of the plant. It’s better to water the herb in the morning so that the water will not evaporate quickly under the hot sun. Too much water could kill the plant, so wait for the soil to dry out between irrigations.
Pests and Diseases
While purslane doesn’t attract your average garden pests such as aphid and spider mites, it does have its own set of bugs that attack it and can wreak havoc with the juicy leaves and stems. The two most lethal pests are portulaca leaf-mining weevil and purslane sawfly. The purslane sawfly lays its eggs in the summer on the leaves of the plant. When the larvae emerge, they start to feed on the leaves. If left unchecked, they could kill the herb. As for the Portulaca leaf-mining weevils, they also feed on the leaves and burrow holes in them. The only way to deal with these pests is to pick them by hand and dispose of them safely.
Most purslane varieties are ready to harvest within 6 to 8 weeks from the time you plant them. Only Goldgelber Purslane matures within 26 days and you can start to gather the leaves and stems within 4 weeks of planting it.
You can either cut the whole plant when harvesting, or you can allow it to regrow. In that case, you should cut it down to 2 inches from the base of the stem. It will spring back to life almost immediately and grow more leaves in a short period of time. However, each time the plant grows back, the stems become thicker and leaves less tender. Experts recommend you harvest the whole plant and sow fresh seeds to get tender leaves and stems.