Frequently considered a nuisance, this plant is a common guest in gardens around the world. According to the Chicago Tribune, it’s regarded as a “noxious weed” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is due to its invasive nature and potential adverse effect upon wildlife. However, removing it from your garden is not only difficult but can also even be detrimental to your health.
As a succulent, the plant in question is capable of surviving in dry conditions and can grow in poor quality soil. Indeed, it sometimes sprouts from cracks in driveways and in graveled areas, although it grows in rich soil among crops as well. And alarmingly, it spreads very quickly and is known to smother native species.
To make this problem worse, each summer the plant releases thousands of seeds that can survive in the soil for decades. And these seeds thrive when the land is tilled. As a result, the plant is extremely difficult to get rid of and can be a nightmare for gardeners and farmers.
The plant in question is purslane, although scientists refer to it as Portulaca oleracea. It is also known by a wide variety of other names, such as fatweed, duckweed, pigweed, pourpier, little hogweed and verdolaga.
In addition, purslane can cover a lot of ground, with each plant emanating from a solitary taproot to form a thick mass. Its stems, which grow parallel to the ground, are slightly red in color. Meanwhile, its leaves are smooth and plump – like many succulent plants – and shaped like a teardrop.
The plant produces yellow flowers from May till September, and its seed pods contain numerous small, round, black seeds. Despite its reputation as a nuisance, though, the plant nonetheless has several beneficial properties for crops.
For instance, its ability to cover the ground effectively means that it can function as a kind of “living mulch.” And it can also aid the growth of surrounding crops by decreasing the salt concentration of the soil and providing nutrients.
Due to its rapid growth rate, however, purslane has been known to crowd out other plants if it is not cultivated carefully. But while removing the plant is a possibility, actually doing so can be difficult. You see, each plant has the potential to produce more than 200,000 seeds, which may be released when the plant is removed.
The seeds have been known to live for decades before germinating, too. And their growth can be triggered just by turning over the soil. Moreover, even parts of purslane stems left behind can grow into new plants, making complete removal very difficult.
It is therefore recommended that entire plants are removed prior to them producing seeds, which occurs approximately three weeks after seedlings appear. Doing so helps to prevent seeds or stems being left behind. Adding mulch following plant removal can help to control further growth of purslane as well.
However, before trying to remove the plant, people should bear in mind that purslane also contains a number of substances that are beneficial to human health. In fact, not only is the plant of high nutritional value, but it’s tasty, too. And if you’re wondering what the plant tastes like, it is described as having a slight lemon-ish flavor.
What’s more, most parts of the plant can be eaten. Yes, while the roots should be avoided, the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds are all edible and are safe to eat raw or cooked. They can be incorporated into soups, salads, sandwiches, pickles and juices. Purslane can also be used as a thickening agent due to the high concentrations of pectin that it contains.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, said, “It’s a miracle plant. I think anyone who has a vegetable garden this year, the purslane will grow as a weed in it. They should not really throw it out. They should eat it.”
There is one potential drawback to eating this plant, however. You see, purslane contains a lot of oxalic acids, which can stop the body from absorbing minerals properly. These are substances that are also found in spinach, and some people can be sensitive to them.
Purslane is a good source of pectin as well, which is a soluble dietary fiber that helps to reduce levels of bad cholesterol. And according to the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, it is “the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids of any green leafy vegetable examined.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a healthy metabolism. But as they are not naturally produced by our bodies, omega-3-rich food – such as oily fish – is our sole source. The omega-3 fatty acids linolenic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid are both found in high quantities in purslane. And that makes it a good option for people who are focused on maintaining a healthy diet.
What’s more, the pigments that give the red stems and yellow flowers of purslane their color are also beneficial to our health. That’s because both of these pigments are known for their antioxidant and antimutagenic qualities.
Antioxidants are beneficial to us because they reduce oxidative damage to our bodies. In addition, they can potentially help to prevent diseases such as cancer and various neurodegenerative conditions as well as slowing the effects of ageing.
Furthermore, the levels of beta-carotene and vitamin E are six times higher in purslane than in other vegetable sources such as carrots or spinach. Vitamins A, C and several B vitamins are also found in high quantities in the plant, as are a range of minerals including calcium, iron and potassium. The combination of high levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids means that purslane is good for the circulatory system, the metabolism, heart health and the skin and eyes – and it can also help to regulate blood sugar. And all that is just the leaves!
Studies investigating the health benefits of purslane seeds have shown that they can decrease levels of bad cholesterol in the human body. As a result, they improve cardiovascular health and lower levels of glucose and insulin in the blood, meaning that they even have potential as an anti-diabetic therapy. Other studies have also noted the potential for chemicals found within purslane seeds to be used as an anti-cancer agents or treatments to reduce the side effects of chemotherapeutics. If you find it in your garden, though, it might be best to just leave it well alone.