Scientific Name: Portulaca oleracea, P. sativa and other spp.
Common Names: Purslane, pigweed, verdolago (Mexico), donduri (Russia), pourpier (France)
Description: This widely distributed garden weed is native to India and Africa and was introduced into Europe in the 1500’s as a salad plant. It was thought to have been brought to America by colonists and quickly escaped cultivation. But recent evidence shows that it was here before Columbus. While valued by some Indians, others considered it a useless weed, and rooted it out of their corn patches. In many countries it is commercially harvested. The plant has round, smooth, succulent red to reddish-green stems, many up to 1/4″ in diameter, upon which many fat, fleshy, alternate, wedge-shaped, reddish-green leaves grow. In mid-summer yellow flowers grow among the leaves, followed by round seed vessels with small, black seeds. It is distinguished from the somewhat look-alike prostrate spurge or milk purslane (Euphorbia maculata) by its succulence and clear juice, pleasantly acid to the taste.
Traditional Uses: American Indians were known to boil and eat three ounces of purslane a day for sustenance on long journeys. It is known as a thirst-quencher. Except for parsley, it is the richest known plant source of iron. Its most famous use is as a food with its own built-in flavor. In fact, the plant is quite tasty being juicy (succulent or mucilaginous) with a pleasant sour taste, making it a fine addition to salads.
Although purslane is often listed in field guides as an edible wild plant, it is virtually unknown in Western herbals as a potential medicine. It is reported to have the following properties: Anti-pyretic, alterative, anti-rheumatic (with vinegar), balsamic (soothing for inflammation), bactericide, cooling, demulcent, diuretic, esculent (edible as food), emollient, hepatic, ophthalmicum (eye diseases), refrigerant or heat clearing, stomachic, tonic, and vermifuge.
It has been used for stomach, liver and intestinal ailments. It is reported to kill intestinal worms in children and adults. The juice from the stems, mixed with honey, has been used as a cough syrup. It was also used to treat arthritis, heart disease, and to promote general good health. It was used to alleviate scurvy and has a higher than average vitamin C and vitamin A content.
Externally, the pure juice of crushed stems is used to bathe sores, including bruises, and allay inflammation. As a compress, it relieves aches and pains and is an antiseptic. The bruised herb applied to the eyes takes away inflammation. A poultice made with vinegar is used to ease stiffened sinews, including gout.
Chinese uses include: anthrax, boils, colds, colic, dysentery, enteritis, eczema, erysipelas, hemorrhoids, herpes, kidney stones, leucorrhea, pruritus (itching) of the genitals, skin infection, snake and insect bites, tumors, ulcers, urinary tract infections. It has also been used for postpartum bleeding. It has been used both internally or externally.
Purslane is one of the major ingredients in the Chinese formula Kang Weng (Anti-Febrile Evil), developed by Dr. Wenwei Xie, a traditional Chinese medical doctor from Bejing, China. He developed the formula to combat herpes and other viral infections which involve fever and chill, headache, soreness or aching, lassitude, poor appetite and a bitter taste in the mouth. This formula is sold under the trade name HRP-C.
Since purslane has a cooling energy it is indicated in conditions involving acute fever, inflammation and pain, but contraindicated in persons with cold or weak digestion.
The most exciting recent news is that this plant is extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help to prevent diseases of the heart, blood vessels, including arthritis and breast cancer. Plant-type omega-3 can be converted by the body into even more powerful types, such as are found in fish oils. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to help the circulatory system.
Considering that purslane is a tasty vegetable, we don’t need to wait until we are sick to use it. Unfortunately, it is not readily available in the commercial herb trade. Fortunately, however, it is quite readily available as a weed in many gardens throughout North America. Instead of poisoning it or digging it out of our gardens, perhaps we ought to harvest it and add it to our salads.
Edible Wild, The by Berndt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby
Field Guide to Medicinal Plants, A by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
GlobalHerb database compiled by Steve Blake, 1992
Materia Medica and Pharmacology by David Culbreth
Rodale Herb Book by Wm. H. Hylton