What is a weed? A sassy gardener will tell you it is any plant growing in the wrong place at the wrong time. What makes the time and place wrong is when multiple plants are competing for the same small patch of soil nutrients, water, and sunlight. If you’re trying to grow a row of beans, but an ambitious brigade of sow thistle decides the bean patch is perfectly suited for putting down roots—well, you’ve got a plant conflict. A sow thistle is just another green product of nature, but in this context, the gardener sees a weed and yanks it out. Poor sow thistle.

But a gardener who is savvy as well as sassy will tell you to get the kitchen ready when you set out to pull weeds, because some of what you’ll get belongs there. If you’ve been a good steward of the soil and haven’t used poisonous chemicals anywhere in your garden, then you can explore the potential edibility of everything in it. You can go foraging in your garden.

In California, where I live, almost any season is a good time for reaping a windfall harvest of weeds that I didn’t plan. The word “windfall” applies quite literally here, since Nature uses the wind to sow her serendipitous crops, sending seeds aloft to seek a cozy patch of soil anywhere they can find it. Of all the wrong-place-wrong-time plants I have in my garden, I am lucky to have one that packs powerful nutrition: purslane.

Purslane (Portulaca olereacea) is a low-growing plant with small, tear-drop-shaped green leaves and thick, reddish stems. The leaves are slightly succulent, and taste a bit tart, similar to sorrel, with a tang like lettuce. Both the leaves and the stems are perfectly edible, a crisp little snack you can pop in your mouth right in the garden. If you collect a handful of purslane, you can chop it up into any sort of salad, although I think it is especially good in mustardy potato salad. If you have enough of it, you can fry it up with onions as a side vegetable. It is a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine.

Not only is purslane tasty; its nutritional benefits are incredible. Purslane is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids: 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of purslane contains 300-400 mg of alpha-Linolenic acid, which is one of the two essential fatty acids (essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, so we need to obtain it from nature through the foods we eat).

Purslane also contains higher amounts of melatonin than other fruits and vegetables. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the pineal gland in your brain, and it plays an important role in regulating sleeping and waking cycles. Melatonin also scavenges the free radicals in our bodies that can otherwise cause damage to our cells, which may play a role in the development of cancer. And melatonin has anti-inflammatory properties. So ingesting some extra melatonin in a mouthful of purslane is not a bad idea.

Is there a cultivated garden in your life? Take a closer look at the weedy companions in and around your garden beds and see if you can identify a friendly purslane plant, waiting to offer you its juicy crunch.


Sources used for this post:

Artemis P. Simopoulos, Dun-Xian Tan, Lucien C. Manchester, Russel J. Reiter. 2005. “Purslane: a plant source of omega-3 fatty acids and melatonin.” Journal of Pineal Research Vol. 39, pp. 331-332.

Gift, Nancy. 2011. Good Weed Bad Weed: Who’s Who, What To Do, and Why Some Deserve a Second Chance. Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press.

Madison, Deborah. 2002. Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. New York: Broadway Books.