Sunday, July 08, 2012


Omega 3 has been in the news a lot lately. You may have read about how it helps our health in many ways. Omega 3 is reported to improve brain function; reduce the incidence of inflammation, migraines, and heart attacks; lower blood pressure; and improve immune function.  That is a tall order for a single nutrient; but the reports all seem to have the research to back up their claims. While salmon and other cold water fish are the main dietary source of Omega 3; you can also grow your own right out in the garden.

Purslane is a rich source of Omega 3.  This is great news for those who don’t like fish and don’t want to take supplements. This easy to grow vegetable is also high in potassium and vitamin A and it has less than 30 calories a cup! This tasty and nutritious little plant has been used for food and health nearly all over the world since ancient times.

While many writers indicate that purslane first originated in northern Africa, the middle-east, or Asia; archeological evidence indicates purslane was also used for food right here in the United States as early as 3500 BC. Purslane has been used as a green vegetable and for its soothing properties everywhere it is found. This annual succulent produces tender tasty leaves, especially when it is young. These leaves range in size from about a nickel in the wild varieties up to a quarter in the domesticated types. They can be washed and tossed into salads, mixed vegetable dishes, soups, and casseroles. They have a pleasant tangy taste, reminiscent of French sorrel.  Some people like them enough to steam up a batch and serve it as a side dish.

The domesticated purslanes can also be used in stir fries and tempuras. Purslane dipped in batter and deep fried is a real treat. (Of course, deep frying pretty much negates the health benefits; but once in a while it can’t be too bad.) The larger leaved varieties are also easier to use for salads and cooking. Tiny little leaves and veggies are still the rage, but I honestly prefer something a little easier to work with. Bigger is sometimes better.

‘Tall Green’ or ‘Giant Purslane’ sport leaves up to two inches long, while ‘Golden’ has slightly smaller leaves at an inch and a half. Those pale greens and chartreuses are back in style. If you follow the trends, Golden Purslane will fit right in. Its leaves are even tangier than the darker green varieties, so there are more reasons to grow it than color alone. Whichever type of purslane you decide to grow, they are all fast and easy.

Purslane thrives in hot weather. It can be started any time from late spring, through the summer, and into the beginning of fall. Purslane’s tiny seeds take from ten to twenty days to germinate. Unlike many seeds, which we tuck into the soil, these guys need to be exposed to light. The easiest way to make sure they have what they need is to start them in six packs. Use moist, screened potting soil or seed starting medium. The fine texture is helpful because the tiny seeds are more likely to stay on the soil surface than they would be with courser medium. Sprinkle a few tiny seeds in each six pack cell, and place in a plastic bag in dappled shade until you have small seedlings. Check them every day, and if the soil starts to dry out, take the six pack out of the bag and place it in a shallow dish of water. The soil should easily soak the water up through the six pack drainage holes. This bottom watering will help keep the seeds in place on the soils surface. After draining for a few hours, don’t forget to tuck them back in their bag.

Once your plants are a half an inch or so high, you can remove them from the plastic bag. As soon as they reach two or three inches it is time to plant them out in the garden. They don’t need any extraordinary care. Water them frequently for the first week or two after you plant them out.  Once they are established they will happily stand some neglect.

You can begin picking leaves within a few weeks of planting them in the garden. Just pinch off as many as you want to use. Your plants will continue producing tender leaves for about fifty days, during which time the cultivated varieties will grow from 12 – 24 inches high. Pinch out any of the tiny flowers and seed pods that begin to form to prolong leaf production. Once the plants are bound and determined to flower you will need to decide if you want to pull them or let them set seed. Purslane can self sow; each plant is capable of producing thousands of seeds. It can become a weed under certain circumstances.

No-till, intensive, and well mulched gardens are unlikely to be infested with unwanted purslane. In fact, this year I have no purslane volunteers even though I have had it in my garden for many years. Between the mulch and the shade of other plants the seeds didn’t have the light they needed to grow. For the first time ever, I had to purchase some seeds and start them myself. If you till your garden and maintain exposed soil, purslane will happily colonize your walkways and any open space in your rows. Tilling can bring long dormant seeds to the surface, exposing the seeds to the light they need to grow.   

As a weed, purslane is really not that bad. There is no danger of it crowding out our native plants. It dies off with the first good frost, it prefers disturbed soil, and the seeds can’t take the shade of other plants. It can be weedy in the garden, but it is seldom seen where the soil has not been disturbed. Purslane is easy to pull or hoe, makes great compost, chickens and other livestock like it, and heck, we all ready know it’s nutritious and tasty. 

If you garden like I do, you will either need to purchase new seed each year, or save your own.  The seed capsules have pointed green covers over them that turn straw colored as the seed ripens. Once the seed has ripened the covers easily flick off and the seed can be shaken on to a paper plate or pie pan. Allow the seed to cure in the open air (in doors, away from dew and summer showers) for a few weeks before storing in a zip lock bag or other small container. The seed is tiny so take precautions against it being spilled. If it falls in the carpet you will never find it.  

Purslane starts are sometimes offered for sale through local nurseries and farmers markets. Seeds maybe available at well stocked seed counters, but you are more likely to find them through specialty seed catalogs. If you can’t find the varieties you want to try locally or in your favorite catalog, High Mowing Organic Seeds offers the ‘Tall Green’ and ‘Golden’ varieties:  (802) 472-6174.

Published by The Hoopa People Newspaper 7/07.  Copyright Harvest McCampbell, all rights reserved.

Omega 3:
Archeological evidence:
Nutritional information:
Photo Credit: Harvest McCampbell 7/07

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