One simple definition of a weed is a plant that grows where people want something else. Plants commonly categorized as weeds usually have great invasive potential, especially on disturbed land used for agriculture or gardening. The faster they spread, the more vigorously they thrive, and the more difficult they are to eradicate only earns them greater notoriety among farmers and gardeners.
But a considerable amount of the plants we usually list as weeds provide incredible benefits to soil and crops. Some of them are even edible and/or medicinal.
Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a fine example of one such plant that is found the world over as a “weed” but perhaps appreciated most by those who harvest it and work it into their cuisine. It has been so thoroughly established from the Mediterranean and Northern Africa through to the Far East, that we’re not entirely sure of its specific place of origin. There’s also evidence that it was established in the Americas before European colonization. In Mexico, where it’s known as verdolaga, it’s one of the most widely consumed quelites—leafy greens traditionally consumed by native peoples since ancient times. Both the leaves and tender stems are edible.
Verdolaga can be eaten raw and is a fresh alternative to the usual suspects of common salad ingredients. It can also be stir-fried, cooked like spinach, or included in soups and stews. In Mexico, two of its most popular uses are cooking it into an egg omelet, usually along with a bit of cheese, or cooking it with pork, usually in a green sauce. Its mildly sour taste is due to the way that this plant, along with many others adapted to arid lands, reserves respiration from photosynthesis to take place at night. For that reason, verdolaga shouldn’t be harvested early in the morning when it is said to be most sour.
As an edible plant, verdolaga is a superfood. It’s an excellent source of potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, and is one of the most outstanding vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acid. It’s also an antioxidant to boot.
Purslane’s uses widely-acknowledged potential as a medicinal plant among many different cultures are attested to through applications for treating burns, headaches, and a number of different diseases and ailments from intestinal problems, to arthritis, and diabetes. In Ancient Greece, Theophrastus (often acknowledged as the father of botany) wrote about purslane, as did Pliny the Elder, who advised of its use as an amulet to protect against all evil.
Learn to recognize purslane by its trailing cylindrical stems (green or red), its succulent leaves (egg to spatula-shaped and clustered at stem joints), and its tiny five-petalled yellow flowers. As long as you confirm that you indeed have purslane (and not the similar-looking but poisonous hairy-stemmed spurge), consider putting this plant to culinary use rather than dooming it to the compost heap. It’s nutritional benefits alone make it well worth your while. You may even want to keep some growing as a potted herb. But if you purposefully planted it, would it still be considered a weed?