Edible weeds: purslane, prickly lettuce and dandelions


This article is adapted from a segment Joel did as a semi-regular guest on Radio Adelaide’s weekly food show ‘Gastronaut’.

Last year’s winter rains saw the forgotten edges of our backyard proliferate with growth. As the bits I couldn’t get to – down behind the shed, and outside the kitchen window – disappeared beneath a thicket of thistles and dandelions, I consoled myself with the permaculture-based observation that weeds are an essential part of ecological succession, colonising available niches as they prepare the ground for healthier ecosystems.
As the driveway disappeared beneath prickly lettuce, I was fascinated to read in Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, that traditional Andean farmers leave the wild ancestors of potatoes – what we might call weeds – growing on the edge of their potato patches so that the cultivated varieties can cross-pollinate with their wild relatives, “refreshing the gene pool” and imbuing them with wild resilience and robustness.
This idea of the wild, weedy edges indicates the resilience and value of weeds. Pat Collins, a herbalist from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales describes how many weeds not only have culinary or medicinal use and are good companions for fruit and vegetables, but they are also good indicators of deficiencies in soil health. Through their lives, weeds work to cultivate the life of the soil through improving soil structure and rebuilding organic matter.

Purslane: "keeping early settlers scurvy-free since 1788"

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
With the onset of the hot weather, some of the weeds that saw winter-abundance, like the delicate chickweed, have receded, making way for others to emerge. Purslane is a familiar plant pushing up through the driveway gravel. It has small, thick, flat leaves in a tear-drop shape that run in opposite pairs along the long, succulent, pinkish-red stems. Now naturalised pretty much everywhere, it’s apparently considered one of the world’s most effective colonising weeds. Pat Collins’ invaluable book Useful Weeds at our Doorstep says that you can eat the slightly salty leaves and the succulent stems. They are very high in Vitamin C, and helped keep early settlers and European expeditions in Australia free of scurvy. You can eat purslane leaves and stems raw in salads, stir-fried or pickled. Collins and other writers describe how some Aboriginal groups would harvest purslane seeds and cook them into cakes that tasted something like linseed. Collins has tips for how to do this in her book. Isabell Shipard further describes purslane’s health benefits in her book How can I use herbs in my daily life?, with highlights including increasing nursing supply in nursing mothers, both human and non, and being a significant source of Omega-3 fatty acids. In short, Shipard says, the nutritional value of fresh picked purslane is likely to be higher than anything you buy at the supermarket.

Prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola)

Prickly lettuce: catching the sun

Prickly Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
Tucked up against the house, and often found beside railway tracks, prickly lettuce looks like a tough, spiny version of a familiar, domesticated lettuce that has bolted to seed. Its central stem carries rows of spines, also present on the central vein on the underside of the leaves. Despite not appearing like something you might want to wrap your tongue around, herbalist Pat Collins says that she eats this common weed when it’s still young and tender (and I’ve started having a nibble every morning while I feed the chooks). Its leaves are bitter – good for digestion – and the familiar lettuce-like appearance is because prickly lettuce is thought to be the wild ancestor of the lettuces we try to keep alive through summer heatwaves. One of its other names is “Opium lettuce” and it has been used historically as a sleep inducer, pain reliever and calmer of nerves. In Useful Weeds at Your Doorstep, Collins notes that some consider prickly lettuce an aphrodisiac, supported by recent Italian research by ethnobotanist Giorgio Samorini. Samorini’s research suggests that the plant depicted in Egyptian bas-reliefs as an offering to Min, the ancient god of fertility and sexuality, is none other than the previously innocent prickly lettuce under our kitchen window. The same study proposes that depending on the dose, prickly lettuce can calm libido, as Pliny the Elder noted in his Natural History, but change the dose and the effect becomes that prized by Min and his swollen member.

A squat dandelion in a sunny spot sticks close the ground...

...while on the dark side of the house, dandy grows thick and tall

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Of all weeds, the dandelion is perhaps one of the most familiar, with its yellow flowers transforming into the wish-granting gossamer balls composed of parachuting seeds that kids obligingly distribute by blowing on. Its jagged, deep green leaves can be added to salads, soups or juices and are very high in minerals and contain a suite of vitamins and potassium. How can I use herbs in my daily life has more on the wonders of this plant. The fun doesn’t stay above the ground with dandelions however, the tuberous roots of the dandy can be harvested, washed, roasted until dark brown, then ground into a powder for use as a coffee-esque infusion. Soph and I did this once on a property in Canada and the hot drink made from the roots had a rich, earthy flavour.

Catsear: the same but different

Fat and furry: one of the ways to differentiate catsear leaves from dandelions

Hunting for plants like dandelions highlights some of the challenges of urban foraging. Dandelions can often be confused with catsear (cat’s ear) which looks similar and often grows prolifically in similar spots. However, while the dandelion has a single, hollow stem with a single flower head, catsears often have multiple flower heads and fatter, furry leaves. While catsear isn’t  harmful to humans (in fact, it’s probably pretty good for you), it demonstrates the importance of getting the right plant. Make sure that when you’re foraging for wild delights that you have a good guide that can help you positively identify plants (Collins’ book is a great place to start for common weed identification). It’s also important to be aware of the safety of the plants themselves, the possible effects of consumption, but also that they haven’t been sprayed with poisons or aren’t growing in contaminated soils. John Kallas, an American forager recommends, that you “don’t gather within 4 feet of an old house because of lead paint. Don’t gather within 30 feet of a highway – and even then, preferably gather uphill – because of nickel and cadmium from the batteries, petroleum chemicals wearing off tires and washing off the side of the road, coolant, and gasoline. And never, ever, ever gather near railroad tracks. They’ve been putting pesticides and herbicides in those areas for the last 100 years”. Plants also provide food and habitat within an ecosystem, so consider only taking as much as you need to ensure a perpetual harvest for other foragers, human and non-human alike.

For some northern hemispheric inspiration, Becky Lerner of Portland, Oregon, USA, took a challenge to only eat foraged food for a week and blogged about her adventures.

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16 Comments

Filed under adventures, food, gardening, wildlife

16 responses to “Edible weeds: purslane, prickly lettuce and dandelions

  1. Some great information there thanks. I noticed only yesterday Purslane is everywhere around my neighbourhood at the moment. Must have been the recent rains. I’m thinking Purslane salad tonight and maybe a purslane and potato fritatta tomorrow.
    :-)

  2. paperdaisiescreations

    Hi. I rediscovered your blog in a strange way…I was reading Organic Gardening and came across your article about urban food sharing (which sounds awesome) and saw you cited as the author which made me wonder if you were related to Abi, a friend of mine…then I remembered she sent me a link to your blog…and to cut a long story short, here I am! A move home to my parent’s property this year has seen a huge increase in my gardening interest and so I am glad to have found another interesting blog to read!

    My parents have purslane in their vege garden. I think mum decided on it after reading the How Can I Use Herbs in my Everyday Life book. She is my herb guru! The range of food that can be grown easily when you think of what grows naturally in your climate it really amazing. It’s all about thinking locally!

    • littlehousecollective

      Hey! Thanks for the comment! What’s your name? I’m Sophie, Joel’s partner, so yes you’re right, it is the same Catchlove family! Will show Joel your comment, what a great attitude you have! Hope you’re enjoying moving back to Adelaide. We have actually now moved out of the sharehouse that inspired this blog, but I guess we’ll keep on adding to it anyhow. Hope we meet you eventually, Soph

      • paperdaisiescreations

        Oh, sorry, my name’s Rosie. I live in Queensland, not Adelaide! I know Abi through church…I was down there the summer past. How’s the gardening going in your new house? I just read a lovely story about Pete Cundall’s garden, how it emerged from hungry soil and now he’s always got enough to share. I dream of that one day in my own garden!

  3. Linda Smith

    I raised my ten children eating Lambs Quarter and purslane. They could never get enough spinach, Swiss Chard or beet tops so would often pick their own lambs quarter and cook them.

  4. Pingback: Edible weeds: chickweed, mallow, sow thistle, plantain and nettle « Little House on the Plains

  5. ladygolightly

    Thanks for this post! I’m really getting excited about the local edibles we overlook and mistakenly call weeds! I’m planning my garden and among other things will be cultivating pigweed, dandelions, lambsquarters, purselane, and now I have to try prickly lettuce. They all grow with almost no effort here. Isn’t it amazing how much we overlook? My kids are very excited to learn about all of this, too. Do you have any books you can recommend? I’ll check out more of your blog- maybe you’ve got a book list on it. Thanks again and keep in touch!

    • nopalito

      Thanks for your enthusiasm! What region do you live in? Are you South Australian too, or elsewhere? Keep us updated on any particularly exciting weed adventures you have!

  6. Tita

    I would like to obtain some wild purslane but have not seen any. I live near Portland. Does anyone have any that I can get?

  7. A friend told me that purslane grows in New Mexico…my homebase! I’d like to do a blog about it. And, I’ve been seeing wild lettuce everywhere lately…travel around…and it has fascinated me! Thanks for the info and I’ll have to get an early start some spring and harvest new tender dandelion greens. Do you know if catsear and sow thistle are the same? I’ve been trying to distinguish between dandelion and sow thistle….but, it looks like I need to learn about catsear too! Thankyou for your interesting and helpful blog and I appreciate your eco-system value description of weeds!

    • nopalito

      Hey there, thanks for your comments – catsear, dandelion and sow thistle are all separate plants, and they are the common names we use here in Australia, so it may be different in the US. Catsear is like a furry dandelion, while sow thistle will have grey-green leaves compared to dandelions, and the leaves will grow up a central stem. Good luck!

  8. I recently got interested in Greek cooking, adding yet another nationality to my range, which actually began with edible wild plants when I was ten (I had Billy Joe Tatum’s cookbook). What I find astonishing about Greek culinary art is that there is no separation between “domestic” and “wild” edible plants. The salad chapters are full of stuff like borage and purslane and silvan arugula, all rubbing shoulders with endive, cos lettuce, tomatoes & cucumbers. I can only imagine that Greek gardens are much more open an inclusive than ours. Throw some olive oil, lemon juice and salt on there, and it’s good! This is something I have to keep explaining to my wife, who still gets creepy-crawlies when she looks at a dandelion. People do get xenophobic about weeds, almost as if we’d believe horticulturally what we wouldn’t accept socially: that there are good ones (the ones we’re used to), and then there are those nasty foreign Others. So my wife tears out all the purslane, and then there’s nothing to cover that spot of soil and protect it from the sun during the hottest part of the summer. Meanwhile, there’s a delicious recipe for purslane-cucumber salad with yogurt & herbs in my new book! I show her the recipe and the accompanying photo, and suddenly purslane morphs from a weed to a vegetable before her very eyes! People are funny.

    • Barb

      I live in Texas where prickly pear grows wild. I noted 5 years ago in Greece it grows with wild abandon there too. When I asked if they ate it, the response was, “No, it was a weed!” which if course it is, but it is also a food source in much of the world. The attitude surprised me as farmable land is such a premium over there. Haven’t checked any Greek cookbooks to see if they do use it and she just was unaware.

      • The Greeks may be less familiar with it, possibly because it may not be native there. “invasive” is another one of those invective terms we have no business using (like calling people “illegals”), but oftentimes folks don’t like plants (or people) who just showed up some time in the last couple decades and want to take over every inch (like many Yankees), which is kind of understandable. Prickly pear is a huge weed problem in Australia, I know for a fact, and if I didn’t know what it was I wouldn’t look at it and think I’d like to try eating it; it takes practice to prepare, too (spines). I can’t see any reason it wouldn’t fit culinarily in Greece, though: it’d be great with lemon juice, go well with fish, etc.

  9. D Lilly

    My mother and grandmother picked wild lettuce every year, not the prickley. It was smoothe and tender with some purple to moroon on the leaves. We ate it with green onions with hot drippings and vinegar for dressing. I picked some last year and I left the plants to grow more this year we have lots of it but it is bigger so I am going to cook it. Since I have been reading of the effects and medicinal uses for the wild lettuce it makes me reluctant to do this I do not want to get ‘put to sleep’ I am going to pare boil it to get some of the whatever out….then treat it like other greens

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