Purslane is a common weed that grows in many parts of the world. There are over 150 varieties of purslane, most of which are edible and nutritious. However, there are a few varieties that should be avoided. Here we will examine the key characteristics of edible and inedible purslanes to help identify which should not be consumed.
What is Purslane?
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a succulent plant that can be found growing in yards, gardens, and cultivated fields around the world. It spreads along the ground, forming mat-like clusters of smooth, reddish-green, fleshy leaves that alternate up the stem. The stems and leaves contain a clear, mucilaginous sap. Tiny yellow flowers bloom in summer. Purslane thrives in warm, sunny locations and can tolerate poor, dry soil. This has contributed to its status as a weed in many regions.
Purslane has a long history of use as a leafy green vegetable. It is popular in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines as well as in Mexico and parts of Asia. All parts of purslane are edible – leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds. It has a slightly sour or salty taste and a juicy, succulent texture. Nutritionally, purslane is high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals like iron and magnesium. It is known as a cooling food in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
Edible Varieties of Purslane
Most varieties of purslane are edible and can be prepared similarly to spinach and other cooked greens. The most common edible types include:
Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is the most widespread type found in temperate regions around the world. It has smooth, rounded leaves and reddish stems. This is the go-to purslane for cooking.
Golden purslane (Portulaca oleracea sativa) is a cultivated variety with large golden-yellow leaves. It is primarily grown for its more visually appealing foliage.
Also called miner’s lettuce or Cuban spinach, winter purslane (Montia perfoliata) can tolerate cooler climates. The small, tender leaves have a deliciously succulent texture.
Sea purslane (Sesuvium portulacastrum) grows wild along coastlines around the globe. The fleshy leaves have a salty, seaweed-like flavor.
In Spanish-speaking countries, verdolaga refers to a smaller variety of purslane with very finely divided leaves. It is cooked and used in soups, stews, and salads across Mexico.
These edible purslanes can be prepared and enjoyed in many ways:
|Edible Purslane Uses
|Raw in salads and on sandwiches
|Sautéed, braised, or added to stir-fries and omelets
|Boiled, steamed, or added to soups and stews
|Pickled purslane stems
|Dried and ground into powder
As long as the purslane variety has been identified as edible, the leaves, stems, and shoots can be consumed in moderation. But some wild types of purslane should be avoided.
Inedible and Potentially Poisonous Varieties of Purslane
A few purslane species contain toxins that make them inedible or even poisonous if ingested. These include:
Unlike common purslane, hairy purslane (Portulaca oleracea sativa) is identified by fine hairs on the stems and leaves. It contains alkaloids that are toxic to humans, so it should not be eaten. Hairy purslane invades crop fields in some regions as an agricultural weed.
Little hogweed (Portulaca oleracea sativa) looks very similar to common purslane when young but can be differentiated by its reddish leaf stalks. As the plant matures, the leaves become rounded and succulent. All parts of little hogweed contain a poisonous alkaloid and a potentially carcinogenic nitrate. Consuming any part of this plant can lead to sickness.
Found in dry areas of the southwestern United States and Mexico, desert horsepurslane (Trianthema portulacastrum) resembles common purslane but has thinner, pointed leaves and smaller yellowish flowers. It contains saponins that are toxic to humans and can cause nausea and vomiting if ingested.
Bitter purslane (Portulaca oleracea sativa) lives up to its name with a distinct bitter taste. It looks very similar to common purslane when young but develops red stems and thinner leaves as it matures. All parts contain oxalic acid and alkaloid compounds that are toxic if consumed in quantities.
These inedible varieties can often be confused with common purslane when foraging. So proper identification is essential to avoid poisoning. When in doubt, do not eat unknown purslane.
Key Differences Between Edible and Inedible Purslanes
Being able to accurately differentiate between edible purslane and its poisonous lookalikes is critical. Here are some key features to help tell them apart:
|May have fine hairs
|Rounded, smooth edges
|Pointed or lobed edges
|Green to reddish-green
|Succulent, slightly sour
|Unpleasant bitter taste
When foraging for purslane, look for plants with the features of known edible varieties like common purslane. Avoid any purslanes that have fine hairs on the stems and leaves, lobed or thin leaves, or reddish coloration. Use taste as an additional check – bitter or very sour purslanes are not suitable for eating. When trying an unknown variety for the first time, only sample a small amount to check for any adverse effects before consuming larger quantities.
Growing Conditions for Edible and Inedible Varieties
Understanding where different types of purslane thrive can also aid in identification.
Edible purslanes prefer disturbed soils in temperate regions. Common purslane thrives in gardens, fields, and along roadsides in many parts of the world. It can tolerate a wide range of conditions. Other edible types like winter purslane and sea purslane have adapted to cooler climates or coastal regions but still favor open sunny areas.
In contrast, most inedible varieties of purslane occur in dry deserts and semideserts. Hairy purslane and desert horsepurslane are found in arid parts of the American west and Mexico where moisture is limited. Bitter purslane also favors very dry soils. Considering the natural habitat of an unknown purslane can provide helpful clues about whether it is safe to eat. If found in a moist garden or field, it is more likely to be an edible variety. Purslanes growing in dry deserts are best avoided.
Safely Cooking and Preparing Edible Purslane
All edible varieties of purslane can be prepared in similar ways. Here are some tips for safe cooking and consumption of purslane:
– Wash thoroughly – Rinse leaves and stems well to remove dirt or debris. Soak in cold water if needed to dislodge particles trapped between succulent leaves.
– Cook before eating raw – Purslane can harbor microbial contaminants like other greens. Cooking helps reduce foodborne illness risks. After cooking, it can be eaten raw or added to salads.
– Remove thick stems – The tender leaves and thin stems are the most palatable parts of purslane. Thicker, woodier stems can be removed before cooking or eating for better texture.
– Blanch or parboil – As a mucilaginous plant, purslane can have a slimy texture when raw. Blanching or parboiling helps reduce this slippery characteristic.
– Use moderate portions – Despite its benefits, purslane contains oxalates so very high intake can potentially cause health issues like kidney stones in predisposed individuals. Eat it as part of a varied diet.
– Look for signs of contamination – Inspect raw purslane carefully and discard any portions showing signs of mold, discoloration, spots, or foul odor. Only harvest from a clean growing environment.
– When foraging, be 100% certain of identity – Only harvest completely identifiable purslane from safe locations, never eat if unsure of what type of plant it is.
With proper identification and preparation, edible purslanes like common purslane can be a nutritious and delicious addition to the diet. But poisonous varieties should be strictly avoided, so learning to confidently differentiate between the safe and dangerous species is crucial when foraging. Use the key characteristics, habitat, and taste profile of purslanes to inform your foraging and cooking. When in doubt, remember it is always better to skip questionable plants to prevent accidental poisoning.
Most varieties of the weed purslane are edible and provide antioxidants, omega-3s, and minerals as part of a healthy diet. However, some wild purslanes contain toxic compounds that can cause sickness if ingested, even in small amounts. The potentially poisonous types include hairy purslane, little hogweed, desert horsepurslane, and bitter purslane. Avoid purslanes with red tinged leaves, pointed lobes, fine hairs on stems and leaves, small yellowish flowers, and an unpleasant bitter taste. Only harvest purslane that can be positively identified as an edible species. With caution and proper identification, foragers can safely enjoy the many edible benefits of purslane while steering clear of poisonous lookalikes. When hunting for purslane, stick to the well-known edible varieties and if in doubt, throw it out.