Discovering the Purslane Plant, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Heinzel
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Freelance herbal writer, community herbalist and medicine maker Jennifer Heinzel hails from the cold city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jennifer is an avid writer, especially for anything folklore or myth-related to herbalism. She has written plant profiles, medicine, reflections and more for places like: the Chequamegon co-op, United Plant Savers journal, and NorthPoint Health & Wellness center. Visit Thymes Ancient Remediesto read more from Jennifer.

Though this inconspicuous-seeming herb is well traveled and renounded for its medicinal properties throughout the majority of the world, its popularity as an edible food never seemed to catch on with Americans. Its popularity is hardly comparable to other exotic herbs’ usage in the Untied States, such as ginkgo, ginseng and dong quai, so maybe that’s why so many people have probably crushed it “underfoot” at one time or another. It may also be why it doesn’t have a memorable characteristic such as stinging nettles, but I have learned that its leaves are of a similar feel and look to that of fish scales. 

Historically it has been know by folk-names such as pussley, pursley and pigweed, more commonly as summer purslane (not to be confused with winter purslane or miner’s lettuce), and botanically as Portulaca oleracea. Know that there is more to this fat, groundcover than meets the eye. Oleracea is said to come from the Latin holus, or olus, meaning vegetables or potherbs. This greatly foreshadows its use throughout our world’s history. This pot herb possesses vivid green, spatula-shaped leaves that can reach a height of six inches. It thrives in habitats like pastures, orchards and dry land, as well as fertile, sandy soil in sunny areas. But be forewarned: if remained unchecked, it will become a hard-to-eradicate nuisance. With its dying breath, it can divert its food and energy to the hurried completion of seed production.

Although the origins of purslane are unknown, the first records show that it was used as a medicine in Persia and East India more than 2,000 years ago. Since its extensive travels, it became a highly-renowned and well-respected medicinal and food-plant. The first herbalist to record its use, or in this case, lack-there-of, was German’s herbalist Hildegard von Bingen, from the 11th to 12th centuries. She states in her book Physica that purslane is cold. “When eaten, it produces bile and mucus in a person. It is not beneficial for a person to eat.” My personal take on her reasoning is that her feelings are related to German’s very cold and wet weather, and that this herb is cooling so you wouldn’t want it in said environment.

On the other hand, my favorite 20th century herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy recalls that “she had never used or heard of this herb until [she] lived in tropical Mexico, where it was [her] only available green salad food, always cooling … [and] refreshing.” Later, Juliette discovered its popular use throughout the ancient Arab world as a food and medicine, as well as in Europe and North America. Native Americans of North America used this cooling herb as a poultice for burns, a juice for earaches, and a tea for headaches and stomachaches. In the southwest, purslane was eaten raw and used to make breads and gruels. Its black seeds were used to make dark but good buckwheat’ cakes.

Stay tuned for even more information from regarding this amazing herb!

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