Plants - Native Plants and Wildflowers

Purslane: An edible groundcover

John Kallas
Photography by
John Kallas

Don't send this nutrient-packed succulent to the compost! How to harvest this misunderstood weed

As long as there is direct sunlight, purslane will spread out, with thick primary stems that tend to resemble reddish-green piping. The plant crawls along the ground in huge mats. Sun-exposed open space can be completely covered by purslane. Unlike some other plants that crawl along the ground, purslane does not root at its nodes. If, however, you chop up thriving plants, like when turning over the soil, you may get a surprise. If there is enough moisture in the soil, many of the cut segments may begin rooting and grow new plants.

This is particularly troublesome for farmers who want to get rid of purslane. They plow, plant new crops, then water new seeds they've planted during the hottest time of the year. Guess who loves those conditions? Purslane and wild-food enthusiasts.

Purslane has limits on its growth. Shade and competition will kill it. Anything that restricts sunlight can kill it—not necessarily the whole plant, but parts can atrophy and die, leaving the rest of the plant to grow where there is sun. Purslane competes with itself as well as other plants. The earlier that purslane emerges from the soil, the longer it can stay in vegetative growth, continuing to develop its potential. Where you are in North America will determine when temperatures get hot enough and days get long enough for purslane to sprout. Southern climates will be earlier; northern climates will be later—it could be April, May, or June. Individual plants can live for two to four months.

Purslane-Pg-134-top-300.jpgFlowers: As purslane reaches a certain age or as growth conditions decline, it starts producing flowers. Individual flowers open only on bright hot days and last for only a day. As long as the plant continues to grow new stems, flower and seed production will be progressive. This means that older stems will flower first, with younger ones flowering later.

Seeds: Of course, seeds are produced when flowers have been fertilized. When ripe, the top part of the seedpod pops off, revealing what looks like a little miniature bird's nest of black eggs. These seeds quietly sit there until some disturbance forces them out of the nest. This could be an animal knocking the plant as it walks by, a raindrop hitting it, or a strong wind blowing through. The seeds do not travel far from the plant unless they hitchhike on some clothing or digging tool, or if the soil is moved.

Since purslane stores moisture, pulled plants do not stop the seed-ripening process, making eradication difficult. Seeds fall to the ground as the plant is pulled, and seeds continue to mature and drop if you pull the plant and leave it. Even worse (or better).


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