MOST GARDENERS have, to put it lightly, inviolable opinions about which plants belong in their yards.
It often has been remarked that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. It has been remarked even more often that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It begs the question: What is a weed?
In modern parlance, the term has a few key characteristics. In addition to being in the wrong place, the “weed” plant also is very common and difficult to eradicate from the garden. Many plants considered weeds are invasive species, meaning that they evolved in one ecosystem and were transplanted, intentionally or accidentally, into a new one. Dropping a species into a new environment gives it distinct advantages. Because it has no naturally occurring pests, diseases or consumers, the plant spreads rapidly and disrupts the balance of its new ecosystem.
While most of us agree that highly invasive species are problematic (I’m looking at you, Scotch broom), not all plants are so easy to categorize. A prized ground cover in my garden might be the bane of my neighbor’s existence, and my neighbor’s shade tree might be covertly destroying my sewer lines.
Of course, not all “weeds” are invasives. Sometimes they are just hardy, common plants that gardeners find little value in. Indeed, the simple fact that a plant is common might be the only strike against it. Or maybe the problem is just that the plant is difficult to get rid of.
Let’s be honest: Horsetails can stake a legitimate claim to our soil, because they set root here millions of years before we did. That doesn’t mean everybody wants them marching across the lawn. Like horsetail, the reputation of common purslane suffers from its prevalence and tenacity. And just like horsetail, the plant might provide more value than it gets credit for.
While purslane sometimes is considered an invasive weed, there is evidence to suggest it has been widely distributed across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and North America for thousands of years. When and how the plant arrived here might not be of particular concern to the gardener crawling around with knee pads and a hori-hori knife. Instead, the burning question is, “Should it stay, or should it go?”
While I might not be ready to seed common purslane in my garden, I am ready to appreciate and make the most of its presence. The scientific name of the plant, Portulaca oleracea, might seem oddly familiar to vegetable gardeners. It shares an epithet with many popular favorite crops in the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, kale, etc.). Believe it or not, the term oleracea comes from Latin and means “vegetable.” To me, this seems like a pretty clear indication that purslane is a useful, edible crop.
The best thing about embracing a plant like purslane is that you don’t have to worry about seeding, watering or fussing about it. Purslane is easy to harvest, tastes great and is generally thought to have a plethora of health benefits.
Purslane is a low-lying annual succulent that produces small yellow flowers. Of course, there are many closely related species that have been cultivated to produce taller stems and showier flowers. These are generally referred to as Portulaca and are widely available at nurseries.
Common purslane and its fancy cousins grow best in full sun and can suffer from root-rot if overwatered during the summer. However, most gardeners will find that they spread quickly and easily without any help.
If you want to stop worrying and love purslane: Harvest the leaves and stems when they are still young and tender. If you harvest regularly throughout the summer, you can reduce flower production and seed distribution. This way, you can help keep its spread in check while cashing in on a free lunch. Or, if you’re behind on your garden maintenance, a free breakfast, lunch and dinner.