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Weed or feed? An edible nuisance called purslane

CookingLifestyle and Leisure

You’re probably already growing purslane. That could be good or bad. Originally from India and the Middle East, this green succulent has long been a reliable food source for foraging humans. The ground cover is not only edible, it grows fast and requires no maintenance. Gandhi listed it among plants that should be grown to help people be self-sustaining.

But to many gardeners, purslane is a weed. The wild varieties, known as common purslane, grow between the cracks in city sidewalks, in gravel driveways and in gardens, intentionally planted or not. It is especially happy in Southern California.

Randy Ziglar has been gardening at Santa Monica’s Main Street Community Garden since 1977, and one of his favorite summer crops is purslane.

“It’s such a giving and plentiful plant, why would you ignore it?" he asked. "We overlook it because it’s so plentiful that we treat it like garbage, but it’s quite wonderful.”

The leaves resemble tiny jade, branching off of red-tinged stems (also edible) and knitting themselves into dense mats, carpets of green seemingly oblivious to abuse. Look down at the ground, especially after a rain, and you'll likely see purslane.

You can always pluck a section of stem to transplant into your garden, but there are advantages to domesticated cultivars such as garden purslane or golden purslane, both available in seed from www.territorialseed.com, among others. The leaves can be four times as large, and unlike the ground-hugging wild varieties, these purslanes grow upright, sometimes 18 inches high, making them easier to harvest and control.

And with purslane, control is always an issue. One plant can produce more than 50,000 seeds. A 3-inch-thick layer of organic mulch will slow it down. Be vigilant in removing the pretty yellow flowers that start appearing at the ends of stems in May and continue all summer.

The effort can be worthwhile. Purslane is tasty, like watercress with a tinge of citrus. Increasingly it’s popping up raw as a gourmet micro-green on salad plates, dressed with a simple vinaigrette and perhaps paired with feta or fresh fruit. It works like spinach in soups and stews, and it can be stir-fried, sautéed, pickled or frozen. It’s a great nonfat filler and thickener for pesto, a crunchy addition to potato salad or a crisp bright bite in a sandwich. In Mexico, where it’s known as verdolagas, it’s a base for salsa verde. The acid taste is highest in the morning; pick in the afternoon for a milder flavor.

“In good conscience I can’t treat it like something to be turned into the compost,” Ziglar said. "It’s delicious.”

The Global Garden, our series looking at multicultural L.A. through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. We welcome story suggestions — garden or otherwise — at home@latimes.com. For an easy way to follow the L.A. scene, bookmark L.A. at Home and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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