Portulaca oleracea is a plant also known as “purslane” or simply “portulaca”. It is a medicinal herb that grows spontaneously in many country. It has been used both in culinary and medical fields for its medicinal properties, and it is so widespread and beloved that in Italy it has numerous local names. For example, in Liguria it is called “purselana”, in Lombardy “erba grassa”, and in Sardinia “barzellana”. In Lazio, it is known as “purcacchia” or “purcacc”, while in Calabria, it is called “andraca” or “purchiacchia”. While in Campania, it has three names: “pucchiacchèlla”, “purchiacchèlla”, and “chiaccunella”. Finally, in Tuscany, it is called “perchiazza” or “sportellecchia”.
Whatever name we want to give it, let’s get to know this plant better, which has a long tradition but is often mistakenly considered a weed due to its high propagating capacity.
Origins of Portulaca oleracea
When we talk about Portulaca oleracea, we refer to an annual (or perennial in some species) herbaceous plant belonging to the botanical family Portulacaceae. Its current nomenclature comes from the Latin “portula”, which means “small door”. This name probably refers to the fruit dehiscence. The term “oleracea”, on the other hand, refers to the culinary use of portulaca. Some believe that this plant is native to Asia, particularly India, while others claim it originates from South America. However, its greatest diffusion occurred in the countries of the Mediterranean basin. Portulaca was widely used in ancient Egyptian medicine, and among the Romans, it was highly appreciated for both its culinary uses and therapeutic and “magical” virtues. For example, Pliny the Elder considered it useful for warding off the evil eye. Today, it is a plant widely used and spread in all countries of the world.
Portulaca oleracea has succulent leaves, meaning they have tissues called aqueous parenchyma that allow them to store a large amount of water, creating water reserves during rainy periods. This helps the plant survive droughts. Because of this, the leaves are very fleshy. They have a bright light green color and a typical ovate-lanceolate shape. They are small and are scattered along the stem, which is also very fleshy and reddish-brown. The stem is prostrate on the ground (creeping), meaning it only develops horizontally, which is a prominent feature of portulaca.
The flowers are yellow, very small, and only open on sunny days. They have a very short lifespan, only a few hours, but they continuously regenerate. When the petals fall, small green capsules begin to form. These capsules, when dried, open and release tiny black seeds (hence the “small door” reference).
The flowering and maturation of Portulaca oleracea occur in a staggered manner. From June until the beginning of autumn, we can find both flowers and small mature seeds on the same plant.
The seeds are carried by the wind or transported by birds that relish them. Furthermore, they do not need to be covered by soil to germinate, which is one of the reasons for this plant’s wide distribution, as it can rapidly cover large areas.
Portulaca oleracea is rich in valuable elements that provide excellent nutritional and therapeutic properties. It contains vitamins, especially vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene (1320 IU per 100 grams), which is considered an exceptional natural antioxidant. It also contains vitamin C (21 mg per 100 grams), vitamin E, and B-group vitamins (B1, B2, and B3).
The plant is also rich in minerals, particularly magnesium (68 mg per 100 grams), potassium (494 mg), iron (2 mg), and calcium (65 mg).
Other elements present include folates, phosphorus, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, and manganese.
Portulaca oleracea has a very low calorie content. It has only 20 kcal per 100 grams of product, considering that the leaves contain 90% water.
Due to its characteristics, Portulaca oleracea is considered an excellent diuretic, detoxifier, and natural vermifuge. It is also a refreshing and antidiabetic plant.
In traditional folk medicine, it was used to treat nausea, diarrhea, and acute enteritis. Other uses included the treatment of hemorrhoids and postpartum bleeding.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in this spontaneous plant, which until recently was considered by many to be a weed. Today, it has become a valuable resource again, particularly due to its content. Its polyunsaturated fatty acids of the omega-3 type, similar to those found in fish, are especially appreciated.
Specifically, 100 grams of Portulaca oleracea leaves contain 350 mg of alpha-linolenic acid. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for reducing and preventing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, as they help lower cholesterol levels, triglycerides, and improve blood circulation.
Another characteristic of this plant is its richness in mucilage (about 40% on dry weight), which is considered a natural emollient. For this reason, Portulaca oleracea can be used to make compresses for treating acne, eczema, red skin, and insect bites.
The only contraindication for using Portulaca oleracea applies to individuals suffering from kidney stones. The plant contains oxalates, substances that, in predisposed individuals, contribute to the formation of annoying stones.
As mentioned, Portulaca has a long tradition in our regional cuisine. Its leaves and tender stems are used to prepare tasty mixed or simple salads. This herb is characterized by a typical bitter and pungent flavor that makes it delightful to the palate.
Another use involves preparing soups, as the mucilage content thickens and makes the broth oily.
It can also be used in fried batters, added to omelets, or as a side dish simply dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon.
In southern regions, it is a tradition to preserve the stems and tender leaves in pickles or brine, to be consumed as a side dish during the winter months.
Even the tiny seeds of Portulaca oleracea have excellent properties and culinary uses, as they are rich in oil and protein. Their collection, however, is a bit complex since, as mentioned, the plant tends to disperse them naturally. Being a succulent and capable of retaining water, one can use a technique that involves harvesting the plant when it is still green and the first maturation begins. The whole Portulaca plant is uprooted, thoroughly cleaned, and left to dry in the open air and in a shady place, on a light cloth or paper. This way, once dried, the seeds will naturally fall from the plant and can be collected to be used whole or ground into flour.
Harvesting Wild Portulaca or Cultivating It?
As we have repeatedly emphasized, Portulaca oleracea is easily found in the wild. Unlike other wild foods like mushrooms, asparagus, oregano, etc, it used to be considered a weed by many. It loves cultivated, moist, and soft soils, which is why we often find it in domestic gardens, from north to south.
So, it is sufficient to look for it to find it. Once harvested, we can use it in our cooking as we like.
However, it is not excluded that it can be cultivated in the home garden, as it is also easy to care for. Simply scatter the seeds on the surface, and the portulaca will begin to spread on our soil. However, this practice may have some drawbacks, as the plant can easily take over and spread everywhere. If you decide to cultivate it, pay attention to its strong reproductive capacity.
- MDPI: “Molecules Characterization of Portulaca oleracea Whole Plant: Evaluating Antioxidant, Anticancer, Antibacterial, and Antiviral Activities and Application as Quality Enhancer in Yogurt” – This study delves into the potential of purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.) in enhancing the properties of yogurt. The research highlights the plant’s richness in phenolic compounds, protein, and iron, and its potential in producing functional yogurt with enhanced antioxidant, anticancer, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties.
- MDPI: “Animals Portulaca oleracea L. Polysaccharide Inhibits Porcine Rotavirus In Vitro” – The article discusses the role of Portulaca oleracea L. in combating diarrhea in piglets caused by Porcine rotavirus. The plant’s potential therapeutic properties are highlighted.
- MDPI: “Antioxidants Protective Effects of Different Molecular Weights of Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.) Aqueous Extract on DSS-Induced Ulcerative Colitis in Mice” – The study investigates the therapeutic effects of purslane extracts on ulcerative colitis in mice, emphasizing the plant’s potential in treating the condition.
- MDPI: “Agronomy Different Functional and Taxonomic Composition of the Microbiome in the Rhizosphere of Two Purslane Genotypes” – This article explores the microbial communities associated with purslane and their potential applications in agriculture.
- MDPI: “Int. J. Mol. Sci. Genetic Authentication of the Medicinal Plant Portulaca oleracea Using a Quick, Precise, and Sensitive Isothermal DNA Amplification Assay” – The research focuses on the genetic authentication of Portulaca oleracea, a significant ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, emphasizing its frequent adulteration by related species.
- MDPI: “Molecules Extraction, Purification, Structural Characteristics, Biological Activity and Application of Polysaccharides from Portulaca oleracea L. (Purslane): A Review” – This review article delves into the various benefits of polysaccharides obtained from purslane, highlighting their anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antitumor, and other properties.
- MDPI: “Int. J. Mol. Sci. Effect of Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.) on Intestinal Morphology, Digestion Activity and Microbiome of Chinese Pond Turtle (Mauremys reevesii) during Aeromonas hydrophila Infection” – The study investigates the potential of purslane in combating infections in the Chinese pond turtle, emphasizing its antibacterial properties.
- MDPI: “Plants Agronomical Practices and Management for Commercial Cultivation of Portulaca oleracea as a Crop: A Review” – This review discusses the potential of Portulaca oleracea as a commercial crop, focusing on its cultivation and management practices.
- MDPI: “Membranes Physico-Chemical, Mechanical, and Biological Properties of Polylactide/Portulaca oleracea Extract Electrospun Fibers” – The article explores the properties of fibers created using Portulaca oleracea extracts, emphasizing their potential applications.
- MDPI: “Int. J. Mol. Sci. Oleracone F Alleviates Cognitive Impairment and Neuropathology in APPswe/PSEN1dE9 Mice by Reducing the Expression of Vascular Cell Adhesion Molecule and Leukocyte Adhesion to Brain Vascular Endothelial Cells” – The research delves into the potential of oleracone F, a compound derived from Portulaca oleracea, in treating cognitive impairments in mice.