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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 01:00 am

Purslane - nuisance or nosh?

Some folks see it as a noxious weed, others as a tasty treat

This weekend, my 4-year-old daughter enjoyed pulling weeds in our herb garden. Because purslane was the only weed in the garden, it was easy for her to differentiate it from the other plants.

Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea), also called little hogweed, is a summer annual with succulent thick leaves and stems. The smooth-edged leaves, rounded at the tip and narrow at the base, are 1/4 to 1 1/4 inches long, and the stems are purplish-red to green. The flowers, yellow with five petals, open only in sunny weather. The plant grows about 8 inches tall and has a prostrate growth habit, meaning that it takes on a “mat” appearance. Visit the University of Illinois’ Midwestern Turfgrass Weed Identification Web page, www.turf.uiuc.edu/weed_web/frame_left.htm, for photos.

Purslane reproduces from seeds or stem pieces. The No. 1 control recommendation for people who consider it a weed? Don’t let it go to seed! About three weeks after the seedling emerges, the plant flowers and sets seeds. When hand-pulling purslane, make sure to remove the weed from the garden, because it can easily reroot itself. Hoeing or tilling this weed causes it to multiply, not die away.

Purslane seeds have been known to remain viable for more than 30 years in undisturbed soil; seeds that might otherwise not have germinated are often brought to the surface by tilling. Purslane seeds germinate best with soil temperatures of 90 degrees. Because seeds don’t germinate well when buried more than a half-inch deep, mulching may help control germination.

Purslane grows well anywhere but is often found in sunny, fertile garden soil. Because of its succulent characteristics, once purslane is established it is drought-tolerant — perhaps explaining why it’s the only thing in my garden doing much growing this summer.

Although many think of purslane as a rapidly growing noxious weed, some consider it a nutritious green vegetable. It is popular in many Latin American countries, where it is known as verdolaga, and eaten as a salad green in France and other European countries. Although purslane is believed to be native to India or Iran, it is found around the world.

The weed form of common purslane can be eaten, but Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers seeds for a cultivated variety. Golden Purslane “Goldberg,” Portulaca oleracea sativa, has succulent 1 1/2 inch golden-green leaves and orange stems on upright plants. This plant is larger than the wild form, and the leaves are described as crisp and mild.

Purslane contains beta-carotene and magnesium, and the taste is said to be similar to that of watercress or spinach. Before adding this plant to your salad, though, make sure to properly identify it and, as with any new food, sample it before eating much of it. Purslane is best eaten fresh and should be washed thoroughly just before use. For recipes, visit the Prairieland Community Supported Agriculture Web site, www.prairienet.org/pcsa/recipes/purslane.htm.

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