Purslane: Pest or Food?

The definition of a weed is rather subjective based on if we like the plant, if we like where it is growing, and how easy it is to eradicate from areas where we don’t like it. Plants are also often upgraded (or downgraded) to weed status if they are competing with plants that we are trying to grow.

If we have decided that a particular plant is an unwanted weed, when dealing with it, it is important to know its life cycle. The life cycle of most weeds around here fall into three basic categories:  annuals, biennials and perennials.

Each category is separated based on how long the plant lives from the time it sprouts to when it produces seed and dies. There are also differences in how they reproduce:  perennials can reproduce from seed or by underground roots, shoots, tubers or stolons. Annuals and biennials primarily reproduce from seed. Management recommendations will vary depending if the weed is an annual, biennial or perennial.

A very common garden weed that you may have encountered is purslane. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an annual weed, meaning that it completes its entire lifecycle in one growing season; seeds germinate in the spring and the plant flowers, produces seed, and then dies in the fall. The plant has ovular, succulent-type leaves and reddish stems. Purslane grows flat on the ground from a single taproot, forming a mat across the soil. It is very drought resistant and can grow basically anywhere from a gravel driveway to a freshly tilled garden bed. Purslane plants have small yellow flowers that bloom about three weeks after the plant sprouts.

Managing purslane can be quite a task. Purslane seeds can last up to 40 years in the soil, so when controlling this plant, it is very important to deal with it before it flowers and makes seed. Also, if you try to control it using tillage or a hoe, make sure to remove all the broken plant pieces or they will send out roots and make a new plant. In a home garden setting, hand weeding or mulching are often the best options.

While it is hard to get rid of, the question becomes:  should we adjust our view of the plant from a weed to a desirable food? Purslane is very high in many antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Referring to the nutritional qualities of the plant, one quote states, “It’s in your yard and it’s cheaper than salmon!”

Purslane has a citrusy flavor and can make a great addition to salads and pasta dishes or used in soups and stews as a thickener. However, don’t eat too much right away because everyone can react differently to certain foods.

At a Wisconsin farmers market, I’ve seen purslane being sold for $4 for a small bunch. Also, I was at a community supported agriculture farm in Arizona where they were planting purslane to include in their vegetable shares. So while you may not want it taking over your entire garden and before you get too frustrated trying to eliminate it, remember that it may have its time and place. Be careful, however, if you do go around scavenging for purslane in areas outside of your garden because sometimes herbicides are used to control it. Make sure you know if it has been sprayed before you add it to your dinner salad.


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