Purslane (botanical name, Portulaca oleracea) is an annually growing plant that belongs to the family Portulacaceae. This herb is also known by other names, such as pigweed, little hogweed, verdolaga and pusley, and grows up to a height of 15 cm to 30 cm. The plant has sprawling succulent stems that have a shade of pink. It produces thick, succulent leaves that grows in bunches and have a vivid green color and are spatulate. The plant produces a single or clusters of two or three small yellow flowers in the later part of summer. Flowers of purslane bloom only for a brief period.
For several centuries, people in India as well as the Middle East have consumed the fresh herb, especially its leaves. This plant has been adopted from the wild variety, which was introduced into Europe during the Middle Ages and subsequently several assortment of the plant were developed from it. The most prominent among them are the green and golden purslane. It is believed that the cultivation of garden variety of purslane started in England quite late - around the second half of the 16th century.
Purslane possesses a somewhat bitter flavor and can be consumed raw, boiled or even pickled. In the Middle East culinary, the cooked plant is added to a customary salad based on bread - known as ‘fattoush'. In France, equal parts of fresh purslane and sorrel were used to prepare the traditional classic soup called ‘bonne femme'. In fact, even in Elizabethan England, purslane was a very popular salad herb. The bulky stems of the older purslane plants were salted and pickled in vinegar for use during winter. However, purslane gradually lost its popularity by the end of the 18th century and was hardly used by people. In the present times, purslane is seldom eaten in England, while a number of recipes recommend that the young and tender stems of the plants be steamed in the same way as is done with asparagus.
An English physician, botanist, astrologer and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper had recommended the herb for treating excruciating gout, while the leaves of the herb were generally applied externally to skin sores and inflammations. In addition, purslane also became popular as a medication that helped to provide relief from pain in sensitive teeth. Afterwards, scientists found that the fresh purslane plant to be a rich source of vitamin C and, hence, it was used in preventing scurvy. In addition, an herbal tea prepared with the leaves of purslane is also known to possess diuretic properties and was taken in the form of a tonic. In contemporary times, purslane is hardly used by herbalists for its therapeutic properties.
The stems, leaves and flower buds.
People in the Dominican Republic use all parts of purslane for treating the parasites inside the body. Almost in all cases, this herb is blended with other herbs, such as Chenopodium ambrosioides. However, there is not scientific literature regarding the in vitro or in vivo effectiveness tests with the herb or extracts obtained from the herb against general internal parasites have been found thus far. The records maintained by Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, known as the “grandmother of herbalist”, have listed purslane or P. oleracea as a remedy for parasites, a blood cleanser as well as a medication for refreshing the digestive system.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, purslane is known as Ma Chi Xian (when translated into English it literally means ‘horse tooth amaranth') and is used for treating infections and/ or hemorrhage of the genito-urinary tract. In addition, the Chinese also use this herb to treat dysentery. In addition, the fresh herb can also be applied externally to provide relief from sores on the skin and snake or insect bites. Ingestion of purslane may lessen oral lichen planus (a chronic autoimmune inflammatory condition) spectacularly.
Apart from its therapeutic uses, purslane also has a number of culinary uses. While people in the United States consider purslane as a weed, this herb can also be consumed as a leafy vegetable. Purslane possesses a somewhat sour and salty flavour and is consumed in most parts of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Mexico. In fact, the leaves, stems as well as the flower buds of the plant are all fit for consumption. Purslane can not only be used fresh in the form of a salad, but also stir-fried or cooked as spinach. Owing to the mucilaginous (moist, soft and viscid) nature, purslane is also excellent for use in soups and stews. Aborigines in Australia use the seeds of this plant to prepare seedcakes. On the other hand, the Greeks, who call the plant by the name of ‘andrakla' or ‘glystrida', sauté (fry) the leaves and the stems of purslane with feta cheese, olive oil, oregano, onion, garlic and tomato.
Habitat and cultivation
The herb purslane (P. oleracea) has been developed from the wild variety, which originated in the Middle East in all probability. Presently, this herb is found growing extensively in the temperate as well as sub-tropical climatic zones extending from China to Europe in the west. Purslane has also been naturalized in North and South America and is also found growing in the United Kingdom. This plant has a preference for arid soils rich in nitrogen content and sunlit locations.
The plant is propagated by its seeds that are sown in spring in light and adequately drained soil. After the seedlings have grown sufficiently, plant the seedlings outdoors at intervals of 15 cm (six inches) in a protected, sunlit location where there is abundance of water. The leaves of purslane may be harvested after six to eight weeks of the plant's growth. The herb has a sub-species - golden purslane or Portulaca sativa, which is not as tough as the main species, but produces beautiful yellow leaves.
When purslane is faced with poor availability of water, something that has evolved in several hot and arid environments, the plant turns to photosynthesis making use of crassulacean acid metabolism - also known as the CAM pathway. At night time, the leaves of purslane trap carbon dioxide that is changed to malic acid - the souring substance of apples. On the other hand, during the day, the malic acid is changed to glucose. If the leaves of the herb are collected in early morning, they possess 10 times more malic acid compared to being harvested in late afternoon. This is the primary reason why the leaves harvested in early morning have a spicier flavour.
Chemical analysis of the herb purslane (botanical name, Portulaca oleracea) has revealed that it encloses several organically active compounds and is a resource for a number of nourishments. A number of the biologically active and, in some instances, potentially toxic compounds, comprise of alkaloids, oxalic acids, coumarins, flavonoids, anthraquinone glycosides as well as cardiac glycosides. In addition, this herb also possesses rich content of omega-3 fatty acids and, in comparison to other vegetables, high protein content. However, the amount of these compounds in purslane differs according to the growing conditions, for instance, soil quality, date of planting, fertilization and so on, of the plants. Age of the herb is another factor on which the amount of these biologically active compounds are present in a plant.
In comparison to any other leafy vegetable, purslane (P. oleracea) encloses more omega-3 fatty acids, especially alpha-linolenic acid. It is believed that purslane also contains 0.01 mg for every gram of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) present in the plant. In effect, this is an exceptional amount of EPA contained by any land based vegetable source. It may be noted that EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid usually present in most of the fish, a number of algae as well as flax seeds. In addition, purslane also encloses several vitamins, primarily vitamin A, vitamin C and some amount of vitamin B and carotenoids. Purslane also contains some dietary substances or essential minerals, for instance, calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. The herb also contains two types of betalain alkaloid pigments - the yellow betaxanthins (visible in the flowers as well as in the somewhat yellowish shine of the leaves) and the reddish betacyanins (noticeable in the color of the plant's stem). The reddish betacyanins as well as the yellow betaxanthins are both powerful antioxidants and laboratory researches have established that they possess anti-mutagenic (any substance that has the ability to lessen the occurrence of mutations) properties.
It has also been found that 100 grams (approximately one cup) of freshly obtained leaves of purslane encloses anything between 300 mg and 400 mg of alpha-linolenic acid. On the other hand, one cup of cooked purslane leaves possesses around 561 mg of potassium, over 2,000 IUs of vitamin A and 90 mg of calcium. Again, half a cup of purslane leaves enclose to the extent of 910 mg of oxalate - a compound associated with the development of kidney stones. Nevertheless, it may be noted that several general vegetables, for instance, spinach, may also include very high intensities of oxalates.