How Portulaca Oleracea (Common Purslane) arrived to the New World is a mystery. For most of botanical history it was assumed to have been brought sometime after Cristoforo Colombo arrived with his ships of pestilence and trade. But more recent discoveries have unearthed a much more complicated lineage.
In 1975 one JH McAndrews along with his team of evolutionary botanists plumbed the depths of the once remote, now suburban, Crawford Lake about 20 miles north of Toronto. In the deepest part of the lake they froze the seeds of common purslane onto the outside of an aluminum pipe packed with dry ice. Because, you know, why not? Analysis of said seeds dated them as far back as 1350, beating Seniore Colombo by 142 years.
As little evidence exists of humans crossing the Atlantic before 1492, it’s hard to ascertain exactly how these tiny little seeds arrived. Though common theory postulates it was the Vikings who, in their indomitable zealotry to discover greener pastures to plow and new populations to absorb into their ever expanding slave trade, transported common purslane across the ocean.
Where purslane is originally from is equally unknown, though many are quick to claim it as their own. When they were still around the Persians assumed the plant native to their vast empire while at the same time India insisted it belonged to their sprawling realm. North Africans and particularly Egyptians liked to see purslane as having sprung from their soil. It is however agreed that it is not from Greece and was mostly likely brought there during one of the many wars that worshipers of Cronos waged upon the aforementioned regions, or were waged against them by these many lands. But regardless of who brought it where and when and how, everyone in the ancient world seemed to very much enjoy common purslane in their salads. It’s hard not to see this commonality as an opportunity missed for peace in their time. But who am I to say?
Fast forward four hundred years or so from the time common purslane made its way by hook or crook to the New World and you’ll find it on the table of none other than General George Washington whose always enterprising life partner, Martha, concocted a recipe for pickled purslane as well as purslane syrup.
While by his tranquil pond, Henry David Thoreau also found a taste for this wild edible which he chose to boil, salt, and butter. Yum, American cooking.
These days purslane is quite the célébrité in some of the world’s most esteemed restaurants, including of course Alice Water’s Chez Panisse. But should you wish to not pay such a hefty price to enjoy common purslane, which in the end seems not so common at all, you can find it growing on the top of walls in Red Hook, Brooklyn, catching an art exhibition in Chelsea, or relaxing on the banks of Newtown Creek in Maspeth, Queens.