Since Ange Vincent showed how to forage for my dinner just before Christmas, I’ve have had to reconsider my definition of a weed. Just how many of the best things in life could actually be free?
But then Purslane – as it known around the world – is no ordinary weed. Ange and I had a hard time finding any of it before Christmas, at the end of Alice Springs’ driest year on record, but it’s extremely common in better times. When I went home I practically tripped over a clump of it growing wild near a dripper in my garden. After the rains last month, its everywhere: back yard, front yard and nature strip.
I was intrigued by Ange’s tip that purslane, which grows all over the world, under many names and in many varieties, was the best plant source of omega 3 fatty acids. Found in their animal form in fish, these fats are celebrated for their contribution to memory, good cholestorol and general good health. So I decided to do some research. There was good news and bad news, but overall good.
Purslane in at least one of its forms is known by the Aboriginal name of munyeroo. In the desert, reports Peter Latz in Bush Tucker and Wildfire, it was prized primarily for its seeds, which are ground into a paste and cooked. They are incredibly high in Vitamin E.
Peter was less enthusiastic about the flesh of the plant. And yet ninteenth century explorers weren’t, with reports that Captain Cook, among others, encouraged their men to eat it to ward off scurvy – which it did. The expedition to find Burke and Will also consumed heaps, while Burke and Wills were holed up on the Copper eating nardoo, which did them not a lot of good.
Anne Urban is another Alice Springs author who has something to say about the Portulaca or Pigweed family – other names for purslane. In Wildflowers and Plants of Central Australia, she distinguished between munyeroo, which has reddish-brown stems and buttercup pigface, which has stems that are more plain red, with small but stunning yellow flowers. That’s the one in my garden.
I’ve been watering it with rainwater to keep it going longer. We’ve had a few salads – it’s got a pleasant, mildly sour taste – but I took Latzy’s warning seriously and as a result have taken to cooking it. Purslane, it seems, isn’t quite perfect; it contain oxalates, and the advice is should only be eaten occasionally if you’re prone to getting kidney stones (I had one a few years ago and I’m not interested in repeating the experience).
Fortunately, most of the oxalates are in the stem of the plant. According to one researcher, the tip leaves have the least amount – forty per cent less than the bigger leaves. The leaves contain about one third per cent soluble oxalates, as opposed to 67 per cent in the stems. And if you boil the plant you reduce the oxalate level by 25 per cent.
This was a study on European varieties of purslain, so it would be interesting to know if the levels vary from continent to continent. I’m also trying to find what research if any has been done in Australia, and if levels of oxalates are dependent on soil type. To my tastebuds, purslain is as good as lettuce, probably more nutritious and uses less than a tenth of the water. I think it’s worth a lot more research.
There’s still a fair bit of buttercup pigface and munyeroo growing round the place. You can keep it going by creating a pond around it and giving it a good drink every four or five days. Recipes? Ange Vincent’s very satisfying concoction was basically a mixture of amaranth, new saltbush leaves and purslain. Add your own dressing, tomatoes etc, and don’t forget to give it a good wash first. If you’re concerned about oxalates, boil the purslane first and throw out the water.
And if you still can’t cope with the idea of eating it yourself, give it to your chooks. In no time you’ll have top-quality free range Omega 3 eggs that would cost big dollar in the supermarket – and your chooks will be the smartest on the block.
There are some gerat purslain recipes and an interesting account of purslane’s history as a food in Africa at this wonderful blog: http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com/2009/03/purslane-delicious-weed.html