Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The weed our ancestors ate in tough times

© 2018 Christy K. Robinson 

Every late-spring or summer day that I'm out watering my potted vegetable plants to try to keep them alive in the harsh desert heat, I wonder how long I can keep them going before they inevitably wither from heat, lack of humidity, or hornworms (the voracious caterpillar of the sphinx moth). Meanwhile, nearby in the Arizona rocky gravel that passes for a desert "lawn," a plant grows and seems to flourish despite the climate and the miserly way I deprive it of water: that is the humble weed, purslane. Purslane is related to the pretty garden flowers, portulaca or moss rose. It's a fat succulent that can spread both by seeds from its flowers, and by surreptitiously sinking roots into the soil if you pull up or break off the plant and leave it there to wither.
Purslane growing in my yard.

It's a survivor!

And that is what made it not a weed, but food for our ancestors in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and America.

I first heard of purslane when my friend, a writer for a health sciences university where we both worked, told me I shouldn't try to rid my yard of it, but to harvest it for salad. She'd covered a foraging field trip for the university magazine, where she'd learned of this weed. But when I offered that she could take the purslane off my hands while I enjoyed my blessedly bland salad, she was not a taker.

Purslane was a cultivated garden food in India and Persia for two millennia, and it was well known in France, but when it propagated in the American colonies, it was not a desirable food. It was cultivated in 1562 in Britain. Botanists have found fossilized purslane seeds in the Americas, so it's likely to have been deposited by migratory birds' droppings. 

When our ancestors were suffering famine and hunger in the 17th century (Jamestown, Virginia, and New England, for instance), they had little to eat but foraged nuts, berries, and greens. Purslane was a valuable weed, and it kept them alive. 

Some of the biggest factors in famines were that everyone was trying to grow tobacco as a cash crop, but they neglected their food crops (thinking they could just buy imported food); there were biblical-style plagues of grasshoppers and caterpillars that ate the crops down to the soil; the settlers didn't count on the Little Ice Age killing their seedlings every spring; and didn't know that tobacco depletes the soil nutrients, rendering it barren. They couldn't get food shipments from England because of the famines and plagues raging through their home country, alongside the ravages of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s and 1650s. 

Going back a few more years, the Endecott Party that settled Salem, Massachusetts in 1628 that was supposed to build a settlement for the Winthrop Fleet in 1630, had terrible setbacks in its agriculture, didn't have enough food brought with them from England, and lost many of its members to scurvy (a nutritional deficit disease) and starvation. Their physical condition had deteriorated so far that they were susceptible to other diseases and disorders.

In New England, purslane is known to grow in gardens, fields, and "waste areas and coastal beaches." It doesn't need much in the way of sustenance, as it grows easily in beach sand and even in California and Arizona desert gravel.

Yet if you must be hungry, and foraging for weeds is what's for dinner, purslane is surprisingly nutritious. Among the plant's attributes are:
  1. high in Omega-3 fatty acids for brain, heart, and depression
  2. potassium for blood pressure
  3. iron for blood oxygenation 
  4. anti-oxidants that slow aging
  5. magnesium and calcium for muscles, bones, teeth
  6. tryptophan and glutathione, more anti-depressants
  7. betalain, beneficial for cholesterol levels
  8. melatonin, which regulates sleep cycles
  9. beta-carotene, in levels about six times higher than a carrot
  10. its citrusy, peppery taste is said to be good in salads
  11. its pectin (the white powder that thickens fruit jams) is a soup thickener
For recipes that include purslane, try this web page:  One of the concoctions, Traveler's Joy, which requires several invasive weeds, seems only to be redeemed by chunks of avocado and cheese. I'm pretty sure avocado wasn't on the shopping list of hungry colonial foragers.  

Martha Washington's cookbook included pickled purslane. Another site shows a 17th-century recipe:
To pickle Purslayn.
Take Purslayn with their Stalkes, and boyl them tender in fair water, and lay them a drying or soaking, when done, put them in a Gally-pot [small earthenware pot used by apothecaries], and make a Brine with Salt and Elder-Vinegar to put to them, so as to cover them, and keep the Pot close stopt.
Early 17th century hay harvest.
Hey, wait. What's going on with those slackers in the background?

We don't know if the Dyers and others of Newport foraged for purslane and ate it, as it's not mentioned in contemporary writings, and it's only a summer weed that the Indians saw growing between their corn. In the winter of 1639-40, when Newport was only about a few months old, some families were running low on food rations, even after trading with the natives for venison and Indian corn. In January, the settlers took inventory of the grain of the 95 households in Newport, and scraped together only 137 bushels. They redistributed and rationed a bushel and a half-peck to each family, promising to reimburse those larger lenders who had given up their ample stores to the poorer households in this biblical-style social compact. The Narragansett natives taught them how to find clams, crabs, and lobsters, and to forage for foods like groundnuts that the English settlers didn't yet consider food. They wouldn't see results in their crops until midsummer, but they could get by with fishing if the weather allowed, and the foods they'd dried and preserved from the previous summer.

Knowing that your ancestors are connected to that purslane growing in your yard, will you be brave enough to add a weed to your salad? If you do, will you comment on this article and let the rest of us know what we're missing?


Christy K Robinson is author of these books:

Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  

Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  

Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)

Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)

William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)

Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)



    Alexandra Stafford: I have read it's edible, it's in my yard in California. Maybe I'll try it if I can find some growing away from where my husband feeds the lawn, not sure what he uses to do that.

    Diane Desrosiers Rinebold: I have tried it, not too bad!

    Kathy Slade: It’s a little sour almost lemony tasting. I have a friend from Saudi Arabia who was very excited to find out that it was growing in my yard!

    Mary Trainor Hawkins: Such an interesting read, will share.

    Thom Adams: Great stuff in a salad or on a sandwich.

    Holly Barnes Gallegos: In New Mexico we call this verdalagas. It’s a tradition dish that in the last generation has been forgotten. In small isolated Spanish communities you’ll still find those who make it. It would be made with caletas (wild spinach), onion and beans.

    Newman Trout: I have eaten it raw many times. Good flavor.

    Lorraine Nelson Eyer: If you try harvesting native purslane, be careful not to confuse it with spurge, which is a poisonous weed. They don’t look alike to me, but some people get them confused.

    Alysa Farrell: we have purslane in our yard, tons of it hehe


    Kay Julian Ripley: I have added it to salads and nibbled on it in the garden for years.

    Jo Ann Butler: My garden is full of it.

    Susan Bidwell-Williams: Purslane grows wild here in the desert of is a small succulent, same family as, and grows similar to, portulaca (moss rose), close to the ground.

    MaryLynn Strickland: Recognized it right away from my old backpacking days! To paraphrase, one man's weed is another's vitaminnies!

    Susan Baker: Grows on my driveway in the cracks. I've eaten it. Highly nutritious.

    Ginger Peace Phelps: Interesting to see what our ancestors did to survive. I have diaries from my husband's grandmother who would pick and eat milkweed plants when they appeared in the early spring. This was about 100 years ago in Vermont.

    Donna Potter: I used to have ton of it in my yard but as the climate changes, so do the various indigenous plants.

    Linda Lozzi: Purslane, it is all over my garden. I am sorely tempted to cook it up. I have read elsewhere that it is delicious and why not make use of all those weeds? Until I get that adventuresome, the most exotic green I will be eating is escarole. I will let you know when I screw up the courage.


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