Portulaca oleracea is a fleshy ground-hugging plant commonly found throughout arid regions of the world including Australia, North Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. This widespread distribution is generally assumed to be the result of human activity.

Also known as pigweed and purslane, Portulaca is used in many cuisines throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico, and was an important traditional staple food throughout Australia where it was also known as munyeroo (among many other names).

A succulent plant to about 40cm with fleshy green leaves, Portulaca has small yellow flowers and stems which become reddish particularly when mature and seed is set. In Central Australia, it is most abundant in disturbed areas on good soil after summer rains, and is greatly encouraged by fire. It was traditionally valued there primarily because it produces copious volumes of small black edible seeds.

In ancient times, the Greek Theophrastus named Portulaca in the 4th century BC as one of several summer pot herbs that must be sown in April, while Pliny the Elder considered its healing properties so reliable he advised wearing the plant as an amulet to expel all evil (Natural History 20.120). Bonvesin de la Riva mentioned Portulaca as a Milanese food in his Marvels of Milan (1288).

Portulaca is highly nutritious and contains more Omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, along with vitamins A, B, C and E and the minerals magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron. It also contains two alkaloid pigments responsible for the reddish colour of the stems and the slight yellow tinge of the leaves, both of which are potent antioxidants and antimutagens. Like many leafy green vegetables including silverbeet, Portulaca also contains oxalate, which is implicated in the formation of kidney stones. Cooking reduces the total soluble oxalate content of Portulaca by about a third.

Used as ground cover in the garden, Portulaca can help create a humid microclimate for nearby plants and stabilise ground moisture. Its deep roots bring up moisture and nutrients that other plants can use, and some plants, including corn, will follow Portulaca roots down through harder soil that they cannot penetrate on their own.

In the kitchen, Portulaca is a versatile green vegetable with a slightly sour and salty taste. The stems, leaves and flower buds are all edible and can be used fresh in salads and stir-fries or cooked like spinach. Its mucilaginous quality also makes it suitable for soups and stews. The sour taste, which is due to the presence of malic acid, is strongest when the plant is harvested in the early morning.

In Greek cuisine Portulaca is known as andrakla or glystrida, and is often eaten fresh with feta cheese, tomato, onion, garlic, oregano, and olive oil. It is also eaten boiled and with casseroled chicken. In Turkey Portulaca is used in salads and baked pastries, and is also cooked as a vegetable similar to spinach. In Albania it is known as burdullak, and is eaten like spinach simmered and served with an olive oil dressing, or mixed with other ingredients as a filling for burek. In the south of Portugal, Portulaca is known as baldroegas and is used as a soup ingredient. In Pakistan, it is known as qulfa and cooked like spinach in lentil stews.

Portulaca was a major food plant in Central Australia and often featured in traditional mythology. Hardy and quick growing, it was particularly important during times of low rainfall due to its ability to grow and set seed quickly. Unlike other cuisines, the most important part of the plant in Central Australia was the seeds, which were either roasted and ground into an edible paste, or ground to a paste and then cooked as seedcakes. The roots were also eaten, as were the leaves and stems after steaming. Early explorers and settlers also recognised the value of munyeroo as an antiscorbutic (a food which prevents scurvy, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C).

And so, to our recipe! Portulaca is also a popular side dish in Moroccan cuisine, where it known as rejla and is prepared a little like spinach. First, wash the plant, chop it into small pieces, then steam for an hour or so until it becomes soft. In a saucepan, mix coriander, garlic, cumin, sweet paprika, olive oil and a little salt. Add the steamed Portulaca to the saucepan and mix well while adding some lemon juice. Cook for a further 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Information in this article was sourced from Moroccan culture expert Brahim Benhim in Melbourne, Peter Latz’s book Bushfires and Bushtucker, and of course Wikipedia.