Sandy’s Garden ... Pursley

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Sometimes, as I have remarked before, my mind behaves very much like a butterfly on a fine summer day, flitting – apparently aimlessly – from one stopping point to the next before fluttering on.

And that’s what happened just the other day when the word ‘pursley’ appeared from nowhere, immediately conjuring up a verbal comparison between itself and the word ‘parsley’. Is pursley a dialect form of parsley, I wondered casually, dismissing the topic almost as quickly as it had appeared. But the question reasserted itself a few days later. Is

parsley a local name for parsley? And if so, where?

You may well be better informed than I, gentle reader, and may already be wondering about my naivety in being unaware of the fact that the direct answer to the question is, ‘No’. You may already know that pursley is another name for a plant much more commonly called purslane, and sometimes known as verdolaga, little hogweed or red root; and that it is a wholly different plant from parsley … Petroselinum crispum … a species of flowering plant native to the central Mediterranean region, naturalized elsewhere in Europe, and widely cultivated as a herb, a spice and a vegetable. Pursley … or purslane … is Portulaca oleracea, which, to quote Wikipedia, “has an extensive distribution throughout the Old World extending from North Africa and Southern Europe through the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent to Malesia and Australasia.” And Malesia is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “a phytogeographical region comprising Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Brunei.” Now, a phytogeographical region is … oh, this could go on forever; you get the general idea.

Purslane has fleshy succulent leaves … often growing in large mats … and reddish stems which spring from a single tap root and straggle untidily pretty much along the ground,

bearing small yellow flowers at any time during the year, dependent on rainfall amounts. It is closely related to the moss rose … Portulaca grandiflora … which featured in this column some seven weeks ago.

It can grow in almost any type of soil ranging from well-tilled garden ground to poor, arid earth: but purslane’s idea of heaven is the vegetable garden, fortunately

in countries usually significantly warmer than ours. It is regarded as a problem weed in many parts of the United States, where it is an alien plant … a plant introduced from another part of the world … although its arrival in America is something of a mystery, for it is thought to have arrived there before Christopher Columbus, so it can’t have come by sea from Europe.

The reason for cultivating purslane … as many gardeners do elsewhere in this world … is to eat the young leaves and tender stem tips, which are said to taste rather like

watercress or spinach. I learn, from a University of Illinois website, that purslane … either wild, home-grown or cultivated commercially … can be used in salads instead of lettuce or pickles; that it can be cooked as a potherb, steamed, stir-fried or puréed; that it can be substituted for spinach in many recipes; and that it tends to get a bit slimy if it is overcooked.

I also learn, from a Condé Nast website, that purslane and parsley salad is delicious, using tender purslane sprigs, flat-leaf parsley, olive oil, fresh lemon juice, a finely chopped shallot and cherry tomatoes, tossed with tomatoes and vinaigrette after the preparatory work is done.

To the best of my recollection, I have never been aware of the delights of purslane and parsley salad: but I am intrigued to learn that my association of pursley and parsley may not have been as completely random as I had supposed.