Purslane Plants

Portulaca oleracea – better known as the common purslane plant – is a single species in the relatively small portulaca genus, and belongs to the portulacaceae family. These succulent annuals have a large distribution ranging from Australasia, the Middle East and into North Africa; although they have been naturalized in the United States, they are widely considered something of a weed in this area. These plants may be creeping or branching, and consist of stalkless, paddle-shaped leaves that may be opposite or alternating, and bear red, prostrate stems. They also contain tiny, inconspicuous, yellow blossoms which bear five petals, and burst forth from the center of a leaf cluster.

Although they are thought to be weeds in some regions, the attractive purslane plant has long been considered both beneficial and exceptionally tasty. Many explorations have discovered traces of this plant in prehistoric sites; however, some of the first references to it date back to ancient Greece and medieval England. Their history continues on past the Middle Ages and into the Great Depression in the United States, where its pervasive growth and high nutritional value made it a staple food. Today, the purslane plant – which has a tangy flavor when eaten raw, and a peppery taste when cooked – is used in a variety of ways, from salads to toppings, stews to soups and stirfries. The purslane plant is also thought to be exceptionally useful for medicinal remedies. This is not surprising, as they contain a higher dosage of Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable; they also contain potassium, carotenoids and calcium, as well as vitamin A, C and B. In traditional Chinese medicine, these succulents have been used to treat dysentery and urinary tract infections; medieval herbalists considered them to be a “cold” herb which would help to counteract “burning” conditions such as liver and heart diseases; in Greece they were thought be a potent blood purifier, while in Mexico they are said to be useful to those who suffer from diabetes. Purslanes also have a small place in folklore and symbolism. For example, it is one of the seven herbs used in a traditional, ceremonial nanakusa-no-sekku dish; while Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, thought that these herbs were so powerful that they could be used to ward off wickedness.

Although purslanes do not contain any particular symbolism, it is not hard to see them as emblems of sustenance. As a gift, these succulents are unique, and look lovely when placed in decorative pots.

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